It’s been 11 years since the release of The Dark Knight, but DC films still struggle to step out of the shadow of excellence it casts. But rather than feeling like a younger brother trying to live up to expectations, Shazam! was like meeting a fun cousin you forgot existed at Thanksgiving dinner. Grossing $325 million worldwide, Shazam! is officially the 6th highest grossing film of 2019 and has spurred the development of a sequel. The film’s tonal shift is clearly a welcome one among audiences.
Zachary Levi stars as the adult superhero version of 14-year old foster kid, Billy Batson. Billy is entrusted with the power of the word when a dying wizard, searching for a worthy successor, passes on his magic to save the world from an ancient evil.
The fantastical and the modern clash in Shazam! as we open with a confused child being transported from the seat of his car to the mystical cave of the wizard. After the child gives into temptation and fails a test to measure his worthiness, we are planted into the foundation of the story. A mixture of mythos and mundanity, the life of a 14-year-old unfolds alongside magical beings thousands of years his seniors. However, the most endearing connection at the center of Shazam! is the undeniably side journey of Billy’s crippled foster brother, conveniently loaded with superhero knowledge. Ripe with stereotypes on paper, most of the film manages to take those familiarities and breath new life into them.
Thematically, the film feels like a natural answer to the muted tones and grunge-adjacent stylings of the rest of the DC cinematic lineup, frequently described as dark. The bright colors and quippy self-awareness of Shazam! is a markedly opposing tone for the studio.
There were, consequently, a ton of trade-offs to make the genre work for non-superhero fans.
The film does a lot better than one might expect in dealing with the sensitive material of fosterhood, maternal abandonment, loneliness and all the necessary ingredients of a superhero origin story. Most crucial to the heart of the film, they managed to get around feeling exploitative with the foster family by not shying away from the dark moments and allowing Billy learn from pain.
However, the emotional pain and the physical pain had an imbalance that felt like an over-correction from something like Wonder Woman or Man of Steel. Where those films really shined was in the physicality that would be expected from the titanic struggles of super-powered punches. Shazam! couldn’t hit those emotional beats, retreating to melancholy to drive the stakes in the form of fear of loss set to acoustic guitar.
Where Shazam! shines, though, is in its emotional direction. It is a satisfying change of pace, but with enough antagonism that it almost seemed like interesting villainy was tossed aside entirely. It’s not casting that’s to blame, because Mark Strong plays great villains. It’s that his character doesn’t actually feel like a true force of evil. You couldn’t convince me that he could conquer a corner cafe, let alone the world
The eminent disaster the film promises comes in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins, a group of evil spirits meant to embody “the Deadly Enemies of Man,” their former nomenclature. With the design language of a colorblind puzzle-maker, the immensely rich potential is squandered for a dreadfully flat collection of antagonists.
For those reasons, Shazam is absolutely a one and done experience. The film is enjoyable and worth the first watch, but it’s not a pinnacle of visual storytelling. On one hand the great emotional control, fun premise, and phenomenal performances made the film highly entertaining. On the other hand, the all-but-ignored villains, cheaply masked action choreography and distractedly arrhythmic pacing left so so much to be desired.
Shazam! lands a 3.7 out of 5 stars.