Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman − four names audiences around the globe recognize, not merely because of the recent Zack Snyder-directed films, but because of their lengthy history in the comic industry. Superman first appeared in 1938, Batman in 1939, and Wonder Woman and Aquaman arrived in 1941. Arriving in late 1938, the character audiences will now recognize as Shazam first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 under his original name Captain Marvel, a creation of Bill Parker and C. C. Beck for Fawcett Comics in an effort to capitalize on the exciting elements of the Superman stories. In a strange way, the seventh addition to the modern DC Comics films, the David F. Sandberg-directed Shazam!, does the exact same thing as its inspiration: it takes all that makes Superman great and places it in a new vessel. Impressively, Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) captures the wonder, magic, and inherent danger of these astonishing tales, creating a frequently hilarious, earnest, and adventurous ride.
Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel) spent the bulk of his life bouncing from one foster home to another. This isn’t because he’s a bad kid, but because of his singular focus to find his mother, the one he was separated from during a carnival, and it’s this focus that often gets him into trouble. After his latest run-in with the police, his social worker places him in the care of Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), former foster kids themselves who run a group foster home. Upon arriving at their home, Billy meets Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Darla (Faithe Herman), Pedro (Jovan Armand), and his new roommate, the superhero-obsessed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). To say Billy’s reluctant to stay and get to know any of them is an understatement, yet when Freddy gets ruffed-up by two local bullies, Billy can’t help but step in. This act of pure heart gets the attention of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who immediately transports Billy to his home at the Rock of Eternity, the home of all magic, so that Billy may become his new champion. The timing couldn’t be better as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has unleashed the Seven Deadly Sins in a personal bid for power which threatens the world and which only a champion of magic can stop.
For the uninformed, Shazam! isn’t the first time that Billy Batson’s graced the silver screen. That honor goes to the serials which ran in 1941 featuring Frank Coghlan, Jr. as Billy and Tom Tyler as his alter-ego Captain Marvel in Adventures of Captain Marvel. If you’re a little confused by the name, yes, Marvel Comics does have a character who also goes by Captain Marvel and yes, that film did come out weeks before Shazam!. In 1967, Marvel trademarked the name, so the comic changed from Captain Marvel to Shazam, though the character didn’t get renamed to match until DC Comics’ “The New 52” lineup of comics in 2011. All of this is merely intended to clear up who’s who and what’s what, but none of that really matters to the overall tone or approach to the story, except that Shazam! draws from New 52 storyline more than the original origins and it strangely works to great effect here, whether you’re familiar with anything or not. In general, Shazam is a happy guy because he’s a kid with super powers. While the newest iteration of the character is more cynical due to his backstory, when changed into the champion Shazam (portrayed here by Zackary Levi), all his armor falls away and he feels free. Plus, the stories are able to go in directions which would otherwise require elaborate set-up or explanation, whereas all it takes here is a little deus ex magic to get it done thanks to the character being magic-based. As such, the story Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) crafted plays to the strengths of both the character, the general tone of the comics, and Sandberg, culminating in a film which is one-part family-friendly carnival ride and one-part horrifying Funhouse Hall of Mirrors.
The most unexpected things about Shazam! are the several moments which push the PG-13 bounds as Sivana unleashes the Sins upon his enemies and the general populace. These moments solidify the real danger Sivana possesses, as well as articulate the character’s depth of pain. This shouldn’t be too surprising considering Sandberg’s experience working in the horror genre, as well as the fact that his DP Maxime Alexandre, production designer Jennifer Spence, editor Michel Aller, costume designer Leah Butler, and composter Benjamin Wallfisch all worked with Sandberg on Annabelle: Creation. Unlike Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman which were purposefully grounded in reality as much as possible, Shazam! is able to play with the rules of reality, bending the rules to infuse just enough terror without breaking into something which will cause nightmares. A particular hat tip to the creature design of the Sins as, for instance, seeing Gluttony split himself in half to become an open maw is both terrifying and marvelous to behold.
Balancing out the creeping dread is a one-two punch in Billy’s journey as an individual and his journey as Shazam. Executing this requires two actors to play the same role on an intersecting path. Unlike other recent superhero films like Captain Marvel, Aquaman, or Black Panther, much of this origin film is as much about the learning of the abilities as it is about the personal journey. For Billy, it’s an exploration of self, as he quests for his mom and a place he can call home. For Shazam, it’s a birth of a superhero, learning both what the powers given by the wizard are and how a hero uses them. For their part, Angel and Levi truly make both sides of the character feel like one. Angel’s performance never digs into exaggeration, channeling instead a grown confidence of someone who’s experienced great pain at a young age yet doesn’t yet have the wisdom of adulthood. On the other hand, once granted godlike powers, Levi takes over and suddenly the weight is gone. Credit to Levi who himself possesses such an innate child-like aura, that, even when Billy transforms, Levi’s able to maintain the illusion of a Big-like change wherein the essence of the individual remains in a new form. (By the way, there’s a delightful homage to the 1988 classic naturally inserted mid-fight between Shazam and Sivana which serves to highlight how well Shazam! manages to balance the darkness and light moment to moment, scene to scene.) Speaking of Sivana, he’s not just a villain plucked from the pages of DC Comics, within Shazam! he’s a cracked mirror of Billy’s story in totality. Without getting into spoiler territory, Shazam! introduces the world of magic through Sivana and its his quest which puts Shazam in his path. Strong is no stranger to comic book films, having worked on Green Lantern, both Kingsman movies, Kick-Ass, and Stardust, yet this is the one which feels uniquely his. No longer in a supporting role, Strong makes an indelible impression with a performance which conveys not depravity, but an enormous void where pain and torment removed his empathy. Especially in the way which Strong portrays Sivana in his interactions with Billy in either form, there’s a continual sense of humanity lurking right at the edges, suggesting a constant opportunity for redemption if only Sivana would make a different choice. This aspect is particularly note-worthy as the film takes place entirely around the Christmas season, a time when darkness is longer than the light, when new beginnings can occur, and when magic is the strongest in our imaginations.
In the end, Shazam! is a weirdly excellent family Christmas movie which is dropping in theaters at the start of spring. While it’s dressed up as a superhero film, it also works as an exploration of mixed families and how a family isn’t made of those who brought you into this world, but of those who love you. This particular message takes on its own surprising form in the third act, offering up a treat worthy of all the time it takes to get there. Oddly, where the first act is fine, serving to set up a great deal quickly without feeling rushed, and the second act is fun, shifting gears into the more comedic area as the transformative aspect of Billy’s story entails not just new powers, but new responsibilities, the third act is where the roof gets blown off and the whole film coalesces into something great. As the first modern DC film that isn’t tied to another, Shazam! does an incredible amount of world-building, character establishment, and storytelling in a shorter runtime than James Wan’s Aquaman and it does it all while never losing sight of what makes the character connect to audiences. It’s not the powers which make a hero, but the way in which they are used. If DC continues this trend of finding directors with a unique vision, like Sandberg and Wan, who can apply that to their individual characters, DC may just find their way out of the unifying universe and into something truly worthy of the characters that serve as the inspirations for the films.
In theaters April 5th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.