The 2010’s has more than anything been defined as the decade of super hero movies, and it produced a renewed rivalry between the two titans of the industry, DC Comics and Marvel, as they plowed through their decades worth of stories to take advantage of this new golden era for the genre. However, most of the narrative of the last decade has largely been about Marvel clearly out-pacing DC. DC started late, after Marvel had already laid the groundwork for their Avengers cross-over, and for years the game plan for DC has been to play catch up with their rival. This resulted in a not so well planned out scheme to bring all of their own characters for a Justice League crossover, which was built upon shaky ground with the poorly received Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and culminated in the underwhelming Justice League (2017), which had none of the same entertainment value as Marvel’s equivalent event films. A large part of the problem was hiring ill-fitting director Zack Snyder to command the whole project, but the blame also extends to DC seeing what Marvel was doing and deciding to play copycat. DC’s bad fortune teaches us that formula isn’t the answer to success, but rather the confidence to make something the best that it can be that really ends up connecting in the end. Marvel, more than anything, has put their trust in the characters, which is what DC should’ve done all along too. They have a gallery of gods and monsters nearly equal to Marvel, so why shouldn’t they believe in their potential. And to DC’s credit, they seem to have finally figured it out. Snyder is no longer around, and instead the focus has shifted towards establishing characters rather than building a franchise. The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) 2.0 retains some of the elements from version 1.0, but the flavor of what they are constructing now is entirely different than what we’ve seen before. It started with the harrowing Wonder Woman (2017), and though I wasn’t much of a fan, the epic Aquaman (2018) also proved to be a massive success. But, the real test for this new DCEU has yet to come as they attempt to dig deeper into their catalog with one of their more fantastical heroes; the colorful Shazam.
Shazam’s history outside of the comics is just as fascinating as anything that they’ve put on the page. For one thing, he didn’t start out as a DC super hero in the first place. Shazam made his debut in 1939 as a premiere character for now long defunct Fawcett Comics. And in those days, he carried the moniker of Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was a unique creation, namely because his true identity was a pre-pubescent boy named Billy Batson who would transform whenever he said the magic word “SHAZAM,” an acronym of six “immortal elders” of legend: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. This made the character especially popular with young children, because the idea that a child could transform into a super hero was such a wish fulfillment fantasy for many young comic readers. However, things came to a head when DC sued Fawcett for what they saw as copyright infringement. They argued that Captain Marvel was too similar to their own Superman, since he had a similar design and set of super powers. DC eventually got Fawcett to cease publication of their most popular character and the financial cost eventually took it’s toll. Eventually, Fawcett comics was bought out by DC, and with it came the license for the character that they once saw as a threat to the popularity of Superman. They were eager to relaunch the long dormant character fully into their own comic universe, but there was one problem. In the intervening time between the lawsuit and the acquisition of the character, Marvel had launched a new hero called Captain Marvel, and because of Fawcett’s cancellation of the old one, Marvel was in the legal right to own that name. So now DC had a popular character who they could no longer legally call by his original name, so they ended up giving him a new one; Shazam. That’s the complicated reason why this particular character goes by two different names, and in an ironic twist, Shazam’s big screen debut comes mere weeks after Marvel has brought their Captain Marvel (2019) to theaters. Even with a long and complicated history, there is no other character like Shazam in the pantheon of super heroes, and with the renewed energy at work at DC, it’s going to be interesting to see if Shazam breaks out as a champion for the studio or as a forgotten relic.
The movie finds young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) on a frantic search to find his long lost mother, who abandoned him when he was very young. Billy has survived off and on within the system, but after his latest run in with the law, he is forced to live in a new foster home run by the very welcoming Victor and Rosa Vazquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans). Billy meets his new foster siblings Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Darla (Faithe Herman) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Fraser), but also doesn’t intend to stay long. At school, handicapped Freddy is picked on by a couple bullies, and Billy stands up to them, only to have them chase him instead. He alludes them by getting on a subway train just in time, but the train is magically swept away with Billy on board. He arrives at a mysterious cavern where he finds a wizard by the name of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) waiting for him. The wizard tells him that he’s been seeking someone of a pure heart to carry his powers and protect the world after his life is ended. He tells Billy to say his name while holding his magic staff, which Billy reluctantly does. After saying the name, a bolt of lightning magically transforms Billy into a muscular, older super hero also called Shazam (Zachary Levi), though mentally he remains the same. Unfamiliar with his new form, Shazam/Billy seeks out Freddy, who’s obsessed and knowledgeable about super heroes. After convincing him that he’s still Billy underneath, the two embark on discovering all the different powers he has, which apparently are limitless. However, as they fool around with Shazam’s powers, a threat begins to grow. Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), a past candidate for Shazam’s powers in his youth, has gained the powers of the evil force that the Wizard had fought against, the demon-like Seven Deadly Sins, and is setting out to destroy Shazam in order to gain ultimate power. Though Shazam is all-powerful, Billy Batson’s inexperience leaves him vulnerable. The question remains, can Billy use his powers responsibly in time to stop an evil force that’s shows no mercy, even to a child.
One of the things that has benefited DC as of late is the returned focus on the characters. No more planning ahead to future franchise films; every movie now concerns itself with what each character is up to in their own story, which is a welcome shift for the once aimless company. Wonder Woman got to be a war hero in her movie, and it fit her development perfectly. And though I felt his movie was bloated and unfocused, Aquaman still shined through as he found himself finding the mantle of kingship in his own story. Shazam offers it’s own challenges, especially given the magical elements that up to now have been absent in the DCEU. And surprisingly, the movie Shazam not only finds it’s footing, it has done so far better than anything we’ve seen before from DC. This is without a doubt one of the best DC Super Hero movies we’ve seen yet, comparable with the rousing Wonder Woman and is light years better than the dreary Batman v Superman. And it all boils down to one simple thing; this is a movie that knows what it wants to be. Too much of the early DCEU movies lacked identity; mainly because they were trying to copy what Marvel was doing, instead of establishing any worth in itself to begin with. With Shazam, they have their most assured standalone feature yet. While it certainly follows your standard super hero formula, the movie banks much of it’s energy into ingratiating the characters onto the audience. These are characters that feel authentic and genuinely likable, which is what the movie needed us to feel since many of them are obscure in comparison to say a Batman or Superman. At the same time, it never takes itself too seriously, as the characters experience their fantastic narrative with a clear sense of the absurd. One of the best sequences in the movie involves Shazam testing the limits of his powers in a fun montage, done in a way that young kids would do if they were making a video showing off their skateboarding skills. The movie never lets you forget that this is a story about an awkward teen stumbling his way through super herodom, and that helps to make it all the more entertaining.
The movie Big (1988) was an obvious inspiration for this version of Shazam’s origin story, as evidenced by a blatant and frankly on the nose reference halfway through the movie. And just like believing that grown up Tom Hanks is really a teenage boy inside an adult body within that movie, the casting of Shazam likewise had to be spot on in order to make the movie work. And thankfully, DC landed on the exact right actor. Zachary Levi, of TV’s Chuck fame, has that special ability to balance humor with sincerity, and that especially works well with his portrayal of Shazam. You completely buy that he and the actor who plays Billy Batson, Asher Angel, are the same person before and after the transformation. And the movie miraculously maintains the continuity between different forms multiple time in the movie. We see both frequently in the film, as Billy can transform at will, and the movie never makes it confusing. I imagine that both actors probably spent a lot of time off set together in order to work on capturing each other’s personality, working towards the medium that would be their character. Levi’s especially over the top exuberance also makes the character hilariously colorful as well. What also helps is the chemistry that they both actors have with Jack Dylan Fraser, who plays Freddy. He’s the clue that makes the duality of the character work, because he has to view them as the same person from scene to scene, and Fraser’s hilarious and spirited performance really carries a lot of charm. The same goes for all the foster kids that they share a home with, as they also lend a great deal of warmth to the movie. And though the villain is nothing special within the full rogues gallery of DC Comics, actor Mark Strong does make Dr. Sivana effectively menacing. The downside though is that he no longer is able to play Green Lantern heavy Sinestro, as he was the only bright spot in that disastrous 2011 film, and perfectly cast to boot.
If there is a flaw to the movie, it’s that it runs a little too long. The movie’s finale especially has a bloated feel to it, and it could have been better served with a tighter edit. Though not terrible by any means, I was checking out at points during the final battle, especially when it was making needless use of slow-motion in parts. It was that point in the movie where I felt that it was betraying the solid identity it had been building up to that point. By the end, it was just serving up the same darkened skies brawl that we’ve seen in countless other super hero movies. But, at the same time, it would throw in a clever little twist on the cliches that would win me back, especially a hilarious bit involving the “bad guy speech” trope. When the movie was kicked into high gear, it usually involved Shazam discovering new levels of his powers, and that’s where the movie sets itself apart from others. In most other super hero movies, the super hero usually is already aware of the extent of their powers, or have it easily spelled out for them. Shazam is completely in the dark for most of the movie about what he’s supposed to be and do, and that sense of playfulness combines with the growing maturity that he must develop is what sets him apart from other like-minded heroes and their movies. The film thankfully devotes most of the movie towards this aspect, but occasionally, it will miss it’s mark and get perhaps a little too comfortable in it’s genre trappings. Also, any time when the DC Universe elements entered the picture, it would get a little distracting, although one artifact of the DCEU actually does serve as an effective plot tool at one point. They are minor gripes in an otherwise effective narrative that always remains entertaining, and that really is all that the movie needs to be in the end.
Another wonderful aspect of the new direction of the DCEU is their embrace of brighter color. One of the worst parts of the Snyder directed films was their significant lack of brightness and color; relying far too heavily on muted shades and grays, which just gave them this grim texture. Both Wonder Woman and Aquaman improved the color schemes, but Shazam takes it’s too the fullest spectrum yet. The vibrancy of Shazam’s costume especially pleasing to see. I love the fact that his design remains in tact from the early Fawcett Comics days. He still has those red tights, golden boots, and white cape, and the filmmakers did a good job of not straying away from that in the slightest. I also love the fact that Zachary Levi’s suit also includes some enhanced padding to make his muscles look almost comically big and sculpted. The fact that his body looks like that and he has the mind of a pre-teen just makes the juxtaposition all the more hilarious. The movie also doesn’t shy away from some darker designs. The Deadly Sins in their demon forms are especially creepy and might be too much for younger audiences. But at the same time, they are well designed and animated, and you can see the level of detail put into their creation. The clash between these two styles, the frightening Sins and the comical Shazam could have derailed the movie, and yet it works well together. It reminded me of a lot of 80’s fantasy comedies that likewise went back and forth between the light-hearted and the profane, like Ghostbusters or Beetlejuice. And since the movie was already borrowing heavily from another 80’s classic like Big, it seems fitting that it also took some inspiration from other movies of that era as well. Not to say that this is trying to be an 80’s throwback on the level of say Stranger Things. It just has that same feel, but in a contemporary sense, and it works perfectly in helping this movie finds it’s character, which makes it distinct among other super hero movies.
Shazam, in most of the ways that matter, is an absolute delight to watch. I would say that it’s probably the most thoroughly entertaining movie from DC’s Universe to date, and could arguably be their best as well. I even dare say I liked it better than Marvel’s own Captain Marvel, and that was a good movie in itself. The old bearer of the name just had a more vibrant film, while the other was just good enough. I still would personally put it a hair shy under Wonder Woman, because although Shazam is more consistently entertaining, it doesn’t exactly have a stand out scene like the “No Man’s Land” sequence from Wonder Woman, and is not quite as ground-breaking as that movie either. Still, Shazam is another move in the right direction for DC and more than anything proves that they are able to compete with Marvel on a story level, and do it in a way that’s all their own. There really is no equivalent for a movie like this in the MCU, except maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and even that has a wildly different plot compared to this one. The best thing is that even without the DCEU behind it, Shazam could exist as a franchise all to itself. It’s got an engaging cast of characters whose adventures are just beginning, with a very charming and engaging hero at it’s center. What’s especially exciting about this movie is that it opens up the DCEU to the existence of magic, which will likely be the source for countless new adventures to come. Just like the Marvel Universe has different flavors to their narratives based on what their heroes bring to their stories, so do these new movies from DC. And with Shazam, we can see that they can be magical, comical, and even genuinely heart-warming. DC had a rough start, but things are starting to look better now, and Shazam is the best confirmation of that so far. Though his road to the big screen has been rough, and at times completely abandoned, Shazam has proven himself worthy of his place among his super heroic peers, across the entire comic book spectrum. When both DC and Marvel are putting out their best, everyone wins, and Shazam reminds us all why good characters always find their way, no matter the obstacles put in their way.