I feel like I’ve been pretty clear at this point on my opinion of superhero movies. I grew up reading comics, so seeing them on the big screen, fully realized, is something that never ceases to entertain me. Honestly, I even tend to love the bad ones. But I’ll also be the first to admit that the genre has some problems. Among other things, the biggest complaint that many have, rightfully so, is that comic book movies tend to be a bit formulaic. We all know the drill by now: Ordinary person suddenly finds themselves with some fantastical abilities, they experience a tragedy which motivates them to be a hero, and they defeat a villain. Rinse and repeat. And while this formula is tried-and-true for a reason, it does admittedly begin to feel a bit stagnant after a while. This is why that, for all the amazing things that Marvel Studios has done, the introductory films for their heroes, like Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, are often relatively forgettable.
With that being said, there have been some which have attempted to break the mold somewhat in terms of what a superhero film can actually do, both narratively and thematically. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favorite example of this. Hot off the heels of The Avengers, which is arguably the most comic book-y superhero film of all time, The Winter Soldier chooses to instead take a more grounded, nuanced approach to its superheroics, and wraps itself up in the guise of a 1970s political thriller. Likewise, Marvel has also produced Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a superhero space opera, and Ant-Man, which is essentially a heist film. These genre shifts make their respective films feel fresh and new, and offer up some extremely unique tonal experiences when compared to their more archetypal contemporaries. But oddly enough, given the campy and often moralistic nature of their source material, there has yet to be a big-budget superhero movie that also doubles as a family film.
When I say “family film,” I don’t necessarily mean a movie for kids. I’m more talking about the sort of Goonies-style, 1980s era, Spielberg-esque films that featured kids as their main characters, yet didn’t necessarily pander to that demographic. If you look at movies like The Goonies or Big or Monster Squad, it’s clear that these films were meant for the entire family to enjoy. They’re light-hearted without being too sappy or cheery, they’re funny but not too raunchy, and they thrill without completely scaring. These are movies that sneak in some sly adult humor for the parents, give the kids a classic adventure that satiates their imaginations, and ultimately prove to be a potent source of nostalgia once those kids become parents themselves. And despite the fact that superhero and comic movies cross-pollinate with other genres on the regular, none have really ventured into this territory yet.
Until now, at least. Shazam! is a movie that can best be described as one of the above: A fun, optimistic, and honestly heartwarming superhero film wrapped up in the charm and attitude of an 80s film. It’s the ultimate fairy-tale power-fantasy: A young boy, with no family and a troubled home life, suddenly finds himself gifted with extraordinary abilities by a wizard. It’s by no means a new concept, but the way it’s approached, by way of the superhero genre is something truly special. The boy in this case is Billy Batson, a young street urchin bouncing from foster home to foster home, searching for his birth mother. He’s a good kid, but he’s had a rough life, and has developed a bit of a frosty outer shell. After a run-in with the police, he finds himself in a new home, which houses a collection of other assorted wayward kids like himself. A strange series of events leads him to be given extraordinary mythological powers by a dying wizard, and he is tasked with stopping a dangerous mad scientist who has been given abilities of his own. Along the way, Billy, now masquerading as an unnamed god-like superbeing after uttering the phrase “SHAZAM,” has to not only confront this new villain, but also his own insecurities and emotional baggage.
Zachary Levi as the adult Shazam is the most convincing kid-turned-adult in a movie since the originator of the trope, Tom Hanks in in the classic Big. He’s gleefully irresponsible, using his powers to get money, free food, and, in one particularly funny scene, access to a strip club. He’s obnoxious, rude, and egotistical as all hell, which is EXACTLY what would happen in reality if you gave a fifteen year-old kid superpowers. But there’s a vulnerability that comes through in his performance that really shines. He’s got the powers of a god, sure, but he’s still a kid. He gets scared, gets nervous, and gets way in over his head, but he stubbornly plows through nonetheless. Levi absolutely nails both the cocky assuredness of an early teenager while at the same time really and truly grasping the accompanying naiveté that comes along with it. He’s honestly just a delight to watch in the role, and you can really tell he was having a blast playing it.
Likewise, Ashel Angel, who plays Shazam’s mortal alter-ego, is equally convincing. Much more of the film’s dramatic moments fall on Angel, whose core story arc revolves around his search for his long-lost mother, and his subconscious desire to find a home and a family. While still possessing just as much levity and snarky, childish humor as his super-powered counterpart, Billy has a profound sadness to his character that really takes center stage in some of the film’s more moving moments. Despite the fact that he can become such a larger-than-life figure, at the end of the day, Billy Batson is still a troubled kid. And if that isn’t presented to the audience in a compelling way, the dynamic, dual-sided power-fantasy aspect of the character is lost. Luckily, Shazam makes this a real focus, and it works remarkably well.
The rest of the kids in Billy’s adoptive family are equally endearing. They all sort of play into some pretty well-established archetypes (the cute, chatty one, the nerdy Asian, the quiet, strong one, etc.), but given how that’s fairly accurate to the source material, I’m willing to give it a pass. I gotta say, child actors can really make or break a film, and in Shazam’s case, they definitely help it to succeed. They have the same spunky charm as all the great kid casts of the 80s, be it the gang from The Goonies or the kids from ET, and the film seems very self-aware of this. They serve as Billy’s tether to the main emotional plot of the film, which keeps it from straying too far into typical superhero beat-down territory.
Mark Strong is Mark Strong, as therefore plays a fantastic villain, as per usual. This is his second turn as a DC comics villain, with his first being a pitch-perfect portrayal of the mustache-twirling Sinestro, in the less-than-stellar Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern film we all like to pretend never happened. His character is fairly static, all things considered, and really only serves as the necessary evil that pushes Billy Batson to truly embrace his heroic side. Strong’s performance is solid, and he chews a fair amount of scenery, but he doesn’t really stand out. And honestly, that’s fine. This is a movie about youth and family, and having an overly-engaging and charismatic villain, akin to the MCU’s Loki, for example, may have derailed that in the hands of some writers. As it stands, Strong’s Dr. Sivana is a perfectly serviceable antagonist for this superhero origin story.
This is an extremely light-hearted and campy movie, far more so than anything else we’ve seen from DC lately, which is an extreme breath of fresh air. The comedy here really lands, and doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to pander to pop culture and internet trends, which was a concern from some of the trailers. It owes a lot of its humor to movies like Big, of which it steals (lovingly) quite a bit of its situational humor. It’s very much a pastiche of previous films with similar premises, cherry-picking the best parts of them and adapting them for its own purposes. But it also has, like many of the films it borrows from, a real, genuine emotional core. While as Shazam, Billy’s story is very much about overcoming a physical threat and saving the people who loves, his journey as himself is still focused squarely on his desire for a family, and his search for his mother. I won’t spoil here how that journey ends, but it is truly one of the most mature and impressively poignant resolutions to that sort of storyline that I have ever seen in what is essentially, at the end of the day, a film for younger audiences. It’s a resolution that I genuinely didn’t expect to be included in the film, even though it pulls directly from the source material, and shows that the filmmakers being it were sincerely committed to telling a realistic, personal story behind the shock and awe of its surface level superhero action. I have a deep admiration for Shazam for this fact, and would love to see other films take similar cues from this one on how to handle the more human elements in their stories.
I think the most surprising thing about Shazam, given how light it is throughout most of its runtime, is that it skirts dangerously close to being at least a partial horror movie. The secondary antagonists of the film, who give Mark Strong’s Sivana his powers, are physical manifestations of the biblical Seven Deadly Sins. And honestly, they’re pretty terrifying, at least in stark contrast with the rest of the film. Their designs are grotesque, lovecraftian, and nightmarish, and they pop in and out with a few scattered jumpscares which are sure to give kids in the audience a fright. They also have some fairly gruesome kills early on in the film, which I feel really pushed the boundaries of a PG-13 comic book movie. Given that the director, David F. Samberg, got his start with horror films like Light’s Out, this really shouldn’t, it’s definitely on-brand. And to be fair, I enjoyed the horror elements. It’s rare to see that in a superhero film. Just know that if you intend to take some smaller kids to see it, you maybe want to brace them for some scares.
Given just how gloomy and cynical the beginnings of the DC Cinematic Universe were with Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman, it’s really genuinely nice to see films like Aquaman and Shazam which are really embracing the warm, optimistic, and fun tones of their source material. Shazam is great because it shows that, even in a superhero film, and even in a film for families and children, that you can still have deep, emotional discussions about what defines certain aspects of our lives. A superhero film can be entertaining, sure. That’s the easy part. Even the terrible ones, like Suicide Squad have some fun moments, because action is relatively simple. What’s hard is writing realistic characters, characters who grow and learn with the film, and whose personal journey’s as humans mirror and reflect their journey’s as heroes. And Shazam is really the first film in DC’s roster of characters that succeeds in this. If this is the direction that DC is heading in now, I’m all for it. Honestly, just give Superman to the writers of Shazam. If anyone can fix this dark, depressing world that Zack Snyder has created, it’s them.