Shazam movie review: Zachary Levi delivers the best DCEU film since Wonder Woman; a joyous ode to superheroes
Director - David F Sandberg
Cast - Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
Rating - 4/5
As the troubled DC Extended Universe finally finds its footing, after a quick sprint along no man’s land and a dip in the ocean, it finds itself in an odd situation - emerging, as it were, from an abusive past, determined to reignite its passion for life.
It goes on this journey of rediscovery along with Billy Batson, for whom superheroes mean diddly squat. Billy is a foster child, abandoned by a mother for whom he still searches. He has a history of running away - not from his problems, but from the idea of stability. He can’t comprehend it.
Billy isn’t a pessimist, despite the cavalier vibe that he gives off, but his optimism is singular. He believes his mother is still out there, waiting for him, looking for him.
Watch the Shazam trailer here
Shazam! is a story about quests. For some, like Billy, these quests are personal - he escapes the foster system as often as he can to locate his mother, only to be dragged back in. For others, like the villainous Dr Thaddeus Sivana, they are logical, stoked by years of bitterness towards a cold-hearted father. But for the both of them, these quests are elemental. Without them, they’d be lost - more gravely than they already are.
Billy and Thad are similar, in a way; they have unusual relationships with their parents - Billy with the mother who abandoned him, and Thad with the father who wishes he did.
Perhaps it is because of these similarities that they are summoned to the Rock of Eternity, face-to-face with a dying wizard determined to find his successor. After rejecting a young Thad for not having the decency required to take on the mantle of Shazam!, the wizard resumes his search, choosing Billy several years later. With no time to lose and a looming threat on the horizon, the wizard anoints Billy the keeper of the powers, which manifest every time he utters the word ‘shazam’.
Like the wizard, played by an always game Djimon Hounsou under a handsome wig, the DCEU is also looking for a certain ‘purity of heart’ and ‘strength in spirit’.
These are traits were unfortunately missing from the series’ first ‘phase’ of films, if that is even the correct terminology to use here. But Shazam! is yet another step in the right direction for the DCEU; it’s a film that visibly distances itself from its divisive predecessors, almost like a teenager embarrassed by her parents in public.
It takes the wizard more than four decades to find his Champion. It took the DCEU four movies. The Trinity - Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman - had to fall to its knees for DC to understand that, for better or for worse, audiences are more likely to accept non-confrontational fluff than challenging cinema.
Shazam! is an altogether different experience - both in tone and in scope - from previous DCEU entries, and this includes the largely beloved Wonder Woman and the box office smash Aquaman. It is, at the risk of invoking the wrath of fans on both sides, to the DCEU what Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming were to the Marvel Cinematic Universe - lighter, less angry, and positively delightful.
The film is at its best not when it is superhero-ing, but when it is sitting for awkward family dinners, when it is manoeuvring its way around high school bullies, and most gratifyingly, when it is wasting time believing it can fly.
In a key early scene, a clueless Billy’s foster brother, played by It’s Jack Dylan Grazer, educates him on the nuances of superpowers. Given a choice, he says, everyone picks flight. No one chooses invisibility, because it stinks of villainy. He wants to break these myths. And as it turns out, so does Shazam!.
You don’t need aerial punch-ups and dense word-building - even though Shazam! has both. You don’t need plans of global domination - cooked up both by villains and studio executives. Sometimes less is more. You don’t need The Rock and Henry Cavill when you get a committed Zachary Levi and a scene-stealing troupe of kids.
Under the unlikely direction of Swedish filmmaker David F Sandberg, Shazam! is as magical as its title suggests; heartfelt, humorous and burdened by none of the hubris of Batman v Superman and Man of Steel.
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