Director: David F. Sandberg
DC movies are on the up and up. Following the success of AQUAMAN, one can only hope that we will soon forget the mess Zack Snyder made with MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN, and JUSTICE LEAGUE. But there’s a lot that DC’s latest release SHAZAM! has that AQUAMAN did not. If you’re someone who at times needs a break from the dragged-out origin stories, the endless monologues dripping with exposition, or the never-ending CGI-soaked battle scenes sprinkled with rambling villain rants, then SHAZAM! might be what you need. Relieved of its duty of fitting in with the ever-expanding DC cinematic universe, SHAZAM! feels somewhat free from extended universe conventions. It’s light, heartwarming, and laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s not just the exclamation point in the title that sets it apart.
SHAZAM! Is about a foster kid named Billy Batson, who when deemed to be the chosen one by a mysterious wizard, is given the ability to transform into an all-powerful grown-up superhero at his will. All he has to do is say the wizard’s name—you guessed it—Shazam! Used to flying solo and hopping from foster home to foster home, Billy ends up in a group home with five other kids and becomes good friends with Freddy, who helps him navigate his new superhero status and to evade Thad Sivana, the villain out to steal his powers.
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SHAZAM! for the DC cinematic universe is likely to carry a similar place in history to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY for the Marvel cinematic universe. GUARDIANS came at a time when we had been introduced to the big name Marvel heroes, who all had both feet firmly planted within the extended universe. It was perfect timing for the studio to dust off some bizarre, often sidelined characters that the casual moviegoer wouldn’t have heard of. So in similar fashion, in comes DC with the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel (look it up) to offer a break from the household-name members of the Justice League. Also similar to GUARDIANS, where the storyline was set deep in outer space and had no initial obligation to the earthly goings-on of the Avengers, SHAZAM! wastes no time on placing the characters into a greater story off the bat, and holds strong on its own.
Beyond its liberation from the conventions of its predecessors, SHAZAM! also just has a notable charm to it that makes it such a delight to watch. It’s got a lot of heart, and feels like a family movie from the ‘80s or ‘90s. Somehow it does this without resorting to gratuitous nostalgia pulls. It’s very of the times (our hero literally becomes a viral YouTuber), but captures the right feels to make you feel like a kid again. Part of what creates this sensation is that it really puts the stories of the kids at the forefront. The child characters are genuinely witty and clever, and being foster kids thrusts them all into a position where they have an above average sense of independence that is entertaining and endearing. The kids are bad-ass and it never seems forced, and a perfectly cast Zachary Levi is believable as a kid trapped in a grown man’s body.
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The movie is perfectly fit for anyone who was an avid superhero fan growing up. SHAZAM! exists in a world where superheroes are already part of the regular world and has several easter eggs referencing beloved DC characters. In addition to that, the very story plays out the very common childhood dream of a kid becoming a superhero. The kids in the movie are lonely and disadvantaged, and serve as a reminder of why we read these stories in the first place—to escape into a world where anything is possible and good can defeat evil. We are also reminded of the dark side of loneliness. In this story, the hero and the villain are all too similar in their feelings of abandonment growing up, but how they intend to use their power and who they surround themselves with makes all the difference.
It’s pleasantly surprising that something so fresh could come out of such a sometimes repetitive genre. One can only hope that DC continues to give us well-directed and wildly entertaining movies such as these, stories that have a strong emotional core and appeal to superhero fans in a way that feels truly genuine. And even to those who have no interest in the genre, SHAZAM! works as both a superhero movie and as just a really fun movie.