Directed by David F. Sandberg, with a screenplay by Henry Gayden, Shazam! offers a standard superhero origin story with a far from ordinary execution. If you know anything about your classic comics, you already know the story of how a goodhearted orphan met an ancient wizard and learned a magic word that transforms him into the World’s Mightiest Mortal. And if by chance you weren’t already familiar with the characters of Billy Batson and the wizard Shazam, you probably got the basics from the film’s many, many trailers.
Gayden’s screenplay borrows heavily from writer Geoff Johns’ 2013 Shazam! mini-series – a revamp which neatly updated Billy Batson’s story for the 21st Century. No longer living in an orphanage in Fawcett City, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is now a 14-year old Philadelphia native and survivor of the American foster care system. After his latest attempt to run away in search of the mother who lost him as a toddler, Billy is placed with the Vasquez family, who already have five other foster children in their home. While Billy is far from enthusiastic regarding the warm welcome he is given, he still finds himself coming to the rescue of his foster siblings the next day, when they are targeted by the local bullies. Because while Billy may not be ready to buy into the Vasequez’ shiny, happy family act, he really hates bullies.
This leads to Billy being chased into the subway and summoned to the Rock of Eternity by the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who gives the heroic Billy the power to transform into his champion (Zachary Levi) by saying his name. Left with phenomenal magic power and no idea what to do with it, Billy turns to his new roommate, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is an unashamed superhero fanboy and self-declared expert on superpowers. The two promptly begin testing Billy’s powers and building his brand through a number of viral videos, with the fame quickly going to Billy’s head while Freddy begins scheming how to best use Billy’s alter ego to make money or, at the very least, make him more popular. This all comes to a crashing end when they are confronted by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) – a rejected champion of Shazam, who freed the Seven Deadly Enemies Of Man and now seeks to claim the wizard’s power for himself.
It is here that purists of the Golden Age Captain Marvel comics may run into trouble with the concept of the new Shazam! There’s been some disagreement over the years regarding whether Billy Batson’s alter ego is a separate being based on Billy’s image of what the perfect man should be or Billy himself aged-up. In either case, Zachary Levi’s Shazam definitely lacks the Wisdom of Solomon that the character is meant to have. Then there are the issues with Dr. Sivana, who combines aspects of three different villains from Johns’ 2013 Shazam! series, where Dr. Sivana sought the power of magic to save his family where his science failed. In the Golden Age, Dr. Sivana was the definitive comic book mad scientist, who sought to prove the superiority of his technology over Shazam’s magic.
Taken on its own terms, however, the pairing of Strong against Levi is a compelling one which establishes the characters as opposites in a far deeper manner than the classic comics’ pairing of a sneaky but physically weak villain against a plain-dealing powerhouse. Dr. Sivana seeks power to prove that he is special and strike back against the family that mocked him all his life. By contrast, Billy has power thrust upon him because he is special and wants nothing more than to regain the family he lost.
Unfortunately, Mark Strong is given little to do beyond look menacing – a task he does very well, but there’s no real sense of pathos to his character. This stands in stark contrast to Zachary Levi’s Shazam, who practically oozes charisma and wins the audience over through sheer force of will. Comparisons have already been drawn between Shazam! and the classic comedy Big because of the movie’s plots, but Levi deserves credit for truly coming across as a kid in an adult’s body like no actor since Tom Hanks and for possessing the same sense of poise and confidence in his super-suit that Christopher Reeve did as Superman.
The rest of the cast does an admirable job, with Asher Angel offering a surprisingly strong performance as Billy Batson, playing him as a true diamond in the rough. Jack Dylan Grazer steals the show, however, as Freddy Freeman, having many of the movie’s funniest lines. Grazer’s comedic delivery is second-to-none whether he is playing off of Angel or Levi. Perhaps the funniest moment of the movie (surprisingly little of which was spoiled by the trailers, for once) involves a montage set to Queen’s “Can’t Stop Me Now,” where Freddy and Billy test what powers Billy has and the limits of said powers.
I know it is inevitable that many will want to compare Shazam! to Captain Marvel given the names of the characters, but it would be better to view Shazam! as DC Comics’ answer to Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse if it must be compared to anything else. Both movies have a lot of funny moments but also have a serious message about the nature of heroism, the responsibility of power and the idea that anyone can become a hero. In other words, this is a wonderful movie for families with children.
Bottom line? Shazam! isn’t a world-shaking superhero movie but it doesn’t try to be. It is as fun and as wholesome as the comics that inspired it. It’s honestly funny too, inspiring more laughter within me than Deadpool 2. It’s honest and it isn’t afraid to be hopeful in the face of a dark world. It may not go on to redefine DC Comics’ cinematic universe and set the tone for what comes next, but we’d be very fortunate if it did.