I know what you’re thinking. “What does Captain Marvel have to do with the DC superhero movie about the kid who has the same superpower as Tom Hanks from Big? Can the reviewer not stop being a Marvel fanboy for even one review?”
Well folks, I’m here to tell you that I can stop being a Marvel fanboy for one review (but just one)…because Shazam! is the superior Captain Marvel film. And that’s saying something, because I really liked Captain Marvel, as you can see in my review here.
A lot of people don’t realize this, but the hero that many people these days just call Shazam was actually known by Captain Marvel when he first debuted in the late 1930’s for Fawcett Comics. This name stuck until the comic took a 20 year hiatus in the 50’s and 60’s, at which time Marvel Comics had their own Captain Marvel character rise to prominence and Fawcett Comics sold the rights to their Captain Marvel to DC. In 1973 when the Fawcett Comics character was brought back in a new series, DC rebranded him as Shazam and that’s more or less what he’s been known as ever since. I know it’s all a little confusing, but just remember that sometimes Captain Marvel is Captain Marvel from Marvel, and sometimes Captain Marvel is Shazam who used to be Captain Marvel from DC.
That’s all well and good, but how does Shazam! fare as a superhero film in an era where DC’s quality has been inconsistent at best and flat-out boring at worst?
It’s actually…pretty good. Pretty damn good.
I can honestly say this is my favorite DC movie since Wonder Woman, mainly because it’s the first DC movie I’ve bothered watching since Wonder Woman. Marvel movies are pretty much an automatic watch for me because I’ve been invested in this whole shared universe thing since 2008, but DC films are another story. They have to have good word of mouth before I’ll see them because the few I’ve seen have been pretty lackluster. The DC cinematic universe as a whole embraced this edgy “Grim-Dark” aesthetic where Superman is a walking, talking philosophical monologue and Batman is a grumpy old man who doesn’t have a second thought about killing random goons. They just weren’t any fun at all to watch. And that’s not to say that I have to have my superhero movies covered in popcorn action and dumb jokes every three seconds because that’s far from the truth. Films like Watchmen and the vastly underrated Chronicle are two of my favorite takes on the genre, and both of them have tons more darkness than levity. It just has to be done correctly, which the DC films have been struggling with a great deal.
Shazam! is DC’s way of testing a more lighthearted take on film-making with a hero that is designed from the ground up to be more lighthearted anyway. Billy Batson is just a 14 year old kid who meets an old wizard and receives crazy superpowers that makes him physically change into the body of a fully grown muscular man-god when he shouts the word “Shazam”. It’s a really really silly premise and there’s almost no way that DC could have made this fit the tone of the other DC films even if they had wanted to. So the fact that they took the character in a completely different direction is a great sign that DC is finally starting to understand what makes their characters so appealing in the first place and it bodes well for the DC cinematic universe going forward.
The movie is carried first and foremost by great writing. I believe the guys writing the dialogue for this one all deserve a round of applause because all of the dialogue feels natural and just so happens to be hilarious, as opposed to most Marvel films where the joke has priority over character consistency. I completely bought that the adult version of Shazam portrayed by Zachary Levi is a 14 year old kid trapped in the body of a super-powered juggernaut, and that’s just a testament to both the writing and his performance. The movie actually spends a great deal of it’s run-time leading up to Billy getting his powers, but once Zachary Levi takes over it’s pretty much all him from then on out. Asher Angel portrays the teenage Billy Batson, but it’s his best friend Freddy Freeman played by Jack Dylan Grazer who steals the show. Savvy viewers may recognize Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak from 2017’s It and he carries the same energy to his performance as Shazam’s best friend and unofficial sidekick and manager.
On the villainous side of things comes the always commanding Mark Strong, who does the bad guy thing so very well. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with, focusing instead on Billy and his quest to find a place to call home. Strong plays the villainous Thaddeus Sivana, who actually begins Shazam! as a fairly fleshed out character. The film even makes the bold choice to open with a young Thaddeus as he’s bullied by his father and brother, wanting nothing more than to escape into games and fantasies. He even gets to undertake the challenge to become Shazam after a bit of mystical hijinx, but ultimately his heart is deemed too evil to be trusted with such power. It was an interesting choice to begin the film with the villain’s origin story and I personally thought it was pretty clever to tie it so perfectly to the hero’s own origin story. It helps Dr. Sivana feel a little more like he belongs in the movie, but outside of the opening 10 minutes of the film he doesn’t really get any more fleshed out as a character.
The film is filled with plenty of shenanigans because most of it is spent exploring what exactly a kid would do if he was given an adult appearance and superpowers overnight. The film has a lot of fun following Billy and Freddy around as they test out Billy’s superpowers as Shazam and the duo are constantly trying to push the boundaries of what they can get away with, whether that’s sneaking away from school or going into a gentleman’s club. I made a joke earlier about Tom Hanks and the movie Big, but it’s pretty easy to see that Shazam! is more or less a love letter to the classic film and even includes a brief gag based on the famous piano scene from Big. Both movies feature teenage wish-fulfillment, and both films explore those themes fantastically.
Also explored are themes of family and what exactly that entails. Billy spends much of the film hunting for a family, just as Dr. Sivana spends most of the film doing evil things because of his family. The film believes that family is more than blood ties and that it’s more important to have people care for you than share your DNA. And that’s just fine by me. Much like Captain Marvel inspired armies of little girls everywhere, maybe Shazam! can do the same for children in foster care. Everybody deserves a hero that they can look up to.
All in all, I highly recommend you go see this movie. At the very least, rent it when it comes out. It’s the first sign of life from DC’s cinematic universe in quite some time (though I haven’t seen Aquaman just yet) and shows that maybe…just maybe…they are ready to get things back on track. If you’re a devout Marvel fanboy only in it for the humor and action, Shazam! is also right up your alley. The characters are a lot of fun, the story is simple yet engaging, and the movie as a whole just works wonderfully. The DC cinematic universe is set to continue in 2020’s Bird of Prey which will follow the events of Harley Quinn and a new team as she desperately tries to forget that Suicide Squad ever happened.