“Oh hey, wassup? I’m a superhero!”
The DC Extended Universe finally has a film worthy the phrase “comic book”, 2019’s ‘Shazam!‘. For those seeking the magic of the classic ‘Superman’ and ‘Batman’ sagas of eras past this finds that sweet spot between heroic, adventurous, and corny that all the overly brooding modern superhero flicks sorely lack.
In 1974 young Thadeus Sivana is “summoned” by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to his lair. This wizard has spent a lifetime guarding demons who represent the seven deadly sins and now that he’s grown old and his powers are weakening he needs a noble hero to replace him. Unfortunately, Thadeus proves not be that hero and is quickly returned to his powerless life. This leads Sivana to spend the next 35 years seeking the power he was “unjustly” denied.
However, that wizard eventually does finds his hero, 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Running out of time, the wizard bestows all his powers to Billy in hopes of him stopping the now adult Sivana (Mark Strong) before it’s too late. Yet, Billy has little interest in being a hero. Billy only seeks to find the mother he “lost” as a small boy and has spent years on this quest. Even after getting a perfect foster family, he refuses to give up.
Yet, now all Billy has to do is say this wizard’s name, “Shazam”, and he transforms into a superpowered adult body (Zachary Levi, absolutely brilliant). A 14-year-old granted superpowers as a man…what could possibly go wrong? Beer run. Check. Strip club. Check. Using powers to solicit social media likes and earn some spending cash. Check.
There’s literally not a stone unturned in this delightfully cornball tale of a teenage boy learning what it means to not only be a hero, but what it means to have a family. Despite a mandate for genre trope gags and setups I never felt cheated and was often surprised at how clever and endearing this “origin story” unfolded. There’s even a wink towards Tom Hank’s classic “boy in man’s body” film ‘Big’.
And, thankfully, there is a fair amount of appropriate comic book darkness displayed. Although the marketing for ‘Shazam!‘ has primarily targeted families and young(er) children, this is decidedly PG-13 with plenty of scares and (bloodless) violence to up the stakes. Yet, the tone remains light–this is ‘Gremlins’ mayhem, not ‘Batman vs. Superman’ gruesome.
We’ve got a protagonist who must earn his title as “superhero”; a villain whose motives are not only understandable, but kinda sympathetic; and a well-rounded cast of fellow orphan misfit brothers/sisters to ably support our reluctant hero. With plenty of humor, style, and action keeping boredom at bay.
Sure, like most superhero films the silly often overwhelms. And much of the support cast don’t get the screen time needed to seem like real people and not just names and “types”. However, with an emphasis on fun; heartfelt, beautifully portrayed characters; and a festive tone ‘Shazam!‘ is the most genuinely “comic book” (live-action!) superhero flick I’ve seen in a long while and an absolute blast.