Ok, so Aquaman may have been a dumb as a bag of halibut, but it was fun, dammit. A LOT of fun to be exact, which judging by the gloom to chuckle ratio of the DCEU thus far is a pretty big deal because by Arthur Curry throwing open wide those brightly coloured doors that Wonder Woman unlocked (and ignoring the awkwardly self-aware quipping of Justice League altogether), Aquaman managed to pave the way for the DCEU’s first actually legitimate comedy. Not bad for a film with an octopus drum solo…
So with a crack of thunder, a flash of lightning and with the spirit of an 80’s family comedy pumping through it’s veins as strongly as a shot of day-glow adrenalin, Shazam! not only introduces a healthy dose levity to this shared universe, but also introduces a lesser-known (yet undeniably classic) to a bigger audience with goofy style. And guess what? Shazam! may actually be the best entry of the DCEU so far.
Billy Batson is an orphan, abandoned by his mother at a distressingly young age and as such has developed a strong sense of independence that’s had him jumping from foster home to foster home like Super Mario on a Koopa killing spree. However, Billy’s latest home seems to be a extraordinarily nourishing home and is packed with other orphans who boast cute character quirks and crippled, motor mouthed, superhero fanatic Freddy Freeman in particular bonds with Billy, but the foster kid has never given up on a tearful reunion with his birth mother.
However, shoving all this noise to the side is the fact that Billy is chosen by an ancient wizard who is looking for someone who is pure of heart to bestow his powers on before the demonic, physical manifestations of the seven deadly sins escape their prison and choose a champion of their own. By yelling the word Shazam he changes into the form of a muscular adult with the powers of flight, superstrength and the ability to shoot lightning from his fingers, but on the other hand he’s still technically 14 years old; so he enlists Freddy to take him to superpowers school. He’d better be a fast learner because the obsessive Thaddeus Sivana, a previous Shazam prospect who was rejected as a child, has just become the chosen champion of the Seven Sins and is all set to unleash his decades worth of frustrations on an unsuspecting world. Can Freddy, Billy and his scarlet clad alter ego stop filming Jackass-style youtube videos long enough to get down to some real superhero-ing?
Straight from the word go, it becomes thoroughly apparent that Shazam’s greatest asset is that it’s insanely likeable; the story of a young orphan gaining the ability to transform into a superhero with the simple yell of a word is sheer 80’s wish fulfilment on a level not quite seen before and plays out basically like the classic Tom Hanks vehicle Big (if growing magically older also meant you could bench press a city bus) and the film embraces the concept so wholeheartedly here’s even a scene in a toy store with a giant keyboard on the floor. Also, with the addition of his wacky new foster family made up of adorable and funny weird kids, there’s more than a few hints of Adventures In Babysitting and The Goonies too, in fact the kid level stuff is SO strong, you get the passing notion that Shazam! would actually make a far better double act with Spider-Man: Homecoming or the Bumblebee reboot than anything else in the DCEU’s current back catalogue.
The magic word here – apart from screaming SHAZAM from a roof top, of course – is fun. Broad, infectious fun and director David (Lights Out) Sandberg is the latest in a continuing line of horror directors to shift gears into superheroics with apparent ease (take a bow Sam Raimi, Jon Watts, Scott Derrickson, James Wan, Guillermo Del Torro, James Gunn and upcoming director of The Flash, Andy Muschietti) and although his horror roots rise to the surface quite excessively at times (the Sins are continuously mangling their screaming victims) he’s put out something so incredibly exuberant, that some of the old DC guard may seem oddly antiquated in comparison.
Despite being about kids, the movie flat out refuses to pander to them as Billy’s seriously tragic back story carries serious weight and is more than enough to coast the movie through it’s endearingly ridiculous origin.
Zachary Levi is magnificent as Shazam and puts on such a good child-as-a-man performances ever (as opposed to man-child) that I truly think he was born for the role. Green Lantern survivor Mark Strong is sternly effective as his cycloptic opponent and it’s a genuine relief to see his gravelly larynx finally utilised as a super villian in a good movie, however it’s the bright-eyed child cast that truly makes the film work.
Asher Angel may look distractingly like Maise Williams’ twin brother but he handles Billy complexies well, having the potentially thankless job of building Shazam’s character only to hand over the fun stuff to Levi but it’s Jack Dylan Glazer’s excitable Freddy (and his dizzying array of DC themed merchandise) that truly nails it and with this and It under his belt he’s amassing quite the back catalogue.
If Shazam has a problem, it’s that for a film that’s a basic origin story, it doesn’t seem to leave much to explore in a sequel thanks to it’s ambitious, anything goes, everything including the kitchen sink finale. The formation of an honest to God super family (nobody tell the Fantastic Four) may send your geek joy-gasms into orbit but it also draws a finalized line under the story, somewhat. In fact, apart from an inevitable stare down with the cocked eyebrow of Dwayne Johnson’s upcoming Black Adam (Shazam’s opposite number who’s hinted at heavily here), it’s tough to figure out exactly where Shazam can go from here.
But screw all that, that’s a problem for the confirmed sequel to deal with; until Billy Batson has to deal with the Fury Of The Gods, Shazam wedges itself cosily on the outskirts of the DCEU, fully acknowledging it’s existence yet never alowing it’s influence yank it’s own story off course.
Much like it’s immature hero, it adapts and builds from lessons learnt by it’s predecessors and shows that there’s still endless potential in the DC franchise yet.
And all it took was a word…