Shazam! is the newest entry in the DC Movie Universe. After a series of bad to mediocre movies, DC realized that the biggest criticism they faced was the level of grittiness that caked the sides of their films: coated of broodiness, globbed with self-doubt, and void of smiles and lightheartedness.
Aquaman came with positive results, proving they can do both serious and fun. Shazam! seems like the perfect story to get that tone right. The plot is about a foster kid, Billy Batson, who can turn into a superhero with various powers by shouting SHAZAM! Shazam! shares the same problem as the protagonist, it’s has two identities trapped in one body.
Billy Batson is your typically foster kid. He’s rambunctious and kind, but not a saint. He’s gets into teenager shenanigans. He’s not dumb, but isn’t a a know-it-all. He’s your typical average kid. He’s a great blank slate to imprint your insecurities on creating a symbiotic bond. He gets put into a wonderful foster family, who are so uplifting and charming, that for once, there’s no dark secret hidden within them. Still, Billy is looking for his “real” family, not realizing it’s right in front of him.
After a little bit of teenage pranks, he gets transported to the wizard Shazam’s lair, who dons him the powers of a great champion. Billy adapts to his new grown up body with the help of a superhero obsessed his foster brother, Freddy. But, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) is after Billy’s powers. He failed the test to be the great hero. Imbued with the power of the seven sins, he attacks Billy, his city, and most importantly, his family, to get ahold of the power Billy holds within him.
Mark Strong is great, though his origin story in the first 10 minutes has remnants of DC’s dark and gritty age. It gets a little too serious and violent at times. Zachary Levi, playing the hero Shazam, and Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Freddy, are delightful. They perfectly fit in super-heroic fun, they’re proof that the world DC lives in is not always serious.
The big problem lies in how their two stories meet. The seven deadly sins and Doctor Sivana, are tremendously dark. Their look is creepy, the violence is hardcore, and the horror aspect is pumped up to the max. They would fit in perfectly in something like Titans and Doom Patrol, but stand out in the bright and colourful world of the heroes.
The heroes, on the other hand, use memes, silly jokes, and get into fun teenager antics. In one scene Zachary Levi flosses (according to the cool kids, it’s a dance). The dichotomy is apparent. There’s the world of adult fear like lost children, self-hatred, and revenge, which counteracts against the childhood fear of fitting in, and identity crises. When they intertwine, it comes off as diluted, losing both tones.
Both parts work very well on their own, but this is where the movie kind of loses the audience. The jokes were meant for the younger viewers, and the action and villains were meant for an older people. This movie should be for that young audience, because it is wish fulfillment, but they could be frightened by the monsters. The trailers and style are designed for that age. Unless it was the point, it missed the mark, because what one saw in the trailer, only saw what was on the surface.
Shazam! is fun like a eating a bowl of sugary cereal while watching a Saturday morning cartoon, until it changes to an animated feature meant to be watched at night when the children are put to bed.
Though tonally off, it’s not all unimpressive. The visuals are outstanding. The colours are great, the action is better than most DC films. The acting is genuine, and not at all forced. Unlike the previous « darker » movies, these actors seem to enjoy the movie they’re in. Zachary Levi’s portrayal as a giant man child is spot-on and not at all unnerving like body-swapping movies.
His foster family are all funny, cute, and only on occasion get a little too sugary. Mark Strong is great in everything, and Shazam! is no different. He plays a fantastic comic book super villain, and if it wasn’t for the overly violent ways, he would fit in even better. Every character has their arc, and their moments to shine, which is a breath of fresh air compared to other movies that use far too many characters. Though the morals are obvious (family, and something about power and responsibility) it’s not given in a ham-fisted way. It’s done in a clean and concise manner, that is full of spirit.
In the end, the movie has all the components of two different movies, which is not necessarily a good thing. I don’t know who’s Shazam!’s audience is intended to be. There are cases to be made for an older audience, but the cheesiness is directed for a much younger audience. There are times it feels like the heads behind the DC movies are still attached to the old ways, and are afraid to let go. They should have gone full fun. The movie is definitely a step forward for the DC universe, and if it keeps on this track, it can redeem itself from the forced and unsuccessful brooding nature.