The semi-officially titled DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has gotten off to a bumpy start ever since 2013’s painfully average Man of Steel, ultimately deriving into downright painful with the release of Suicide Squad before finally giving us a glimpse of its bright potential in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Now following the colossal failure of Justice League and the gigantic success of Aquaman (a topsy-turvy scenario no one could have predicted a mere two years ago) David F. Sandberg has delivered us Shazam!…and it may just be the best DCEU movie yet.
Shazam! follows ‘Billy Batson’, a 14-year old orphan on the run from various foster homes, perusing the streets of Philadelphia as he hopes to find his birth mother. After finding himself in another foster home, Billy magically comes into the contact with a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows him with superhuman abilities that activate on a singular command…Shazam! Now Billy must come to terms with his newfound abilities as a child trapped in an adult’s body, whilst also battling the nefarious Dr. Silvana.
What immediately makes Shazam! so uniquely enjoyable compared to a majority of past superhero fare is where it draws its focus. Instead of being a story of literal gods and kings battling it out on a mass-scale, it is a much more grounded tale of a group of young orphans who are seeking their place in this world. And no, not grounded in the sense of Zach Snyder’s grisly post-9/11 tone that infected previous DCEU efforts, but in managing to have a hell of a lot of fun whilst being taken seriously. Billy’s journey is not an easy one for it is filled with heartbreak and heavy disappointment, but when he transforms into his adult alter ego he finally gains the opportunity to live every single child’s dream, to be a superhero.
The three main actors exploit this potential to its fullest. Asher Angel is great as the young Billy, but the real scene-stealers are Zachary Levi as the titular adult hero and Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy’s friend/side-kick/brother ‘Freddy’. Grazer proves his breakout performance in IT was no fluke, in another hilarious and heartfelt performance as a young boy who just wants to be like his heroes but feels like he can never be. Meanwhile, Levi exudes child-like wonder and excitement as the older Billy, never giving the audience any doubt that there is a 14-year old boy under all that muscle.
This is truly what makes this film a fantastic superhero experience, a huge sense of hilarious heartfelt fun that is self-aware to our culture’s current obsession with the genre. Why do we love superheroes so much? Because we so desperately want to be them, an idea this film literally embodies in what is essentially Superman meets Tom Hanks’ Big (of which the film makes a wonderfully funny tribute to). It’s a 132-minute power fantasy that orders you to put your cynicism aside and enjoy the ride; I definitely did as a 21-year old so I can’t imagine how much younger audiences will get a kick out of this.
If there is a weak-link in Shazam! then it would be Mark Strong’s villainous Dr. Silvana. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Strong’s performance, it is just inescapable that there is wasted potential felt towards his character after a strong opening scene, further worsened by his chief motivations being fulfilled by the end of the first act. Nonetheless, Shazam! is a well-needed joyous ride that once again highlights how strong the DCEU can truly be and I heartily recommend you check it out over the Easter holidays.