It is a genuine pleasure to watch the DC Cinematic Universe implode like a dying star. That’s not because I’m not a fan of the source material. It’s because the best laid plans of Zack “Wake the Fuck Up” Snyder have resulted in a chaotic neutral reset of the entire brand. And the films coming out of said rebirth are what this whole shared universe should have been in the first place.
Aquaman was a wildly entertaining space opera (without the space). Untethered from the tone and clutter of Justice League, it got to define itself as a kitschy, globetrotting adventure with an octopus playing the drums and lots of laser guns. Wonder Woman (and its forthcoming follow-up) get to exist in Patty Jenkins’s prequel pocket universe. There the heroine and her time-hopping exploits are unencumbered by the needs of the greater, flawed franchise. Suicide Squad, for all its failures, was still a neon-tinged ensemble circus. And Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn will certainly refine and focus the formula in its sequel. Now we also have Shazam!, which establishes itself as one of the best superhero movies of our modern era.
Yes. The movie with the guy from Chuck in a big, silly suit bequeathed to him by a wizard. That movie. That’s the one I’m gonna push on everyone I know for months to come! I am as surprised as you are, but I’m not going to fight it. Like most of the DC slate, this is a long-gestating title that never really looked like it would come together. The multiple false production starts — not to mention the oddness of the hero — made this look like a surefire miss. But that may have only released it from the need to comply with a series of films that weren’t connecting with audiences. And so Shazam! quietly comes together as a film with across-the-board appeal. No, really: I am as surprised as you are.
Note: Only the lightest of spoilers follow.
Shazam! follows the exploits of Billy Batson (Asher Angel). He was accidentally separated from his mom as a toddler and wound up bouncing around the foster system. As a teenager, he resorts to hijacking cop cars as he attempts to find her again. When he’s given one final chance with an adoptive family, he gets taken in by a couple who were former fosters themselves, and have a full house of other misfit children. This includes Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer): a disabled brother figure who uses comic book references to convince Billy to let down his defenses.
Freddy’s most prized possession is, hilariously, one of the bullets that hit Superman in the eye during Superman Returns. He also owns a replica Batarang. He’s fandom made manifest in a world where all the characters are real. And he sees how their powers of good could help yet another lost soul. He also wears the kind of Aquaman shirt one might find at Wal-Mart. It’s a hero worship that’s also cheap merchandising — a theme that permeates the film. (Interestingly, Shazam! hits theaters only shortly after Disney’s Dumbo, in which Tim Burton similarly skewers both capitalist exploitation of The Special and Walt Disney’s own cruelty towards the power of symbols.)
Anyway! Freddy gets attacked by some bullies at their high school; Billy defends him. As the bullies turn their attention to the Batson boy, he flees and winds up in the subway. That’s when an ancient wizard kidnaps our pint-sized hero and imbues him with magical powers. The teenage boy instantly becomes a super-powered adult man (Levi) with all the skills of ancient legends like Atlas and Zeus.
Yeah. It’s quite a leap. It’s like Big, but if Tom Hanks had to punch a lot of bad guys.
Mixing It Up (In More Ways Than One)
The newly born Shazam has no immediate threats or, really, any pressing business whatsoever. So Freddy helps Billy explore his powers. The eventual training sequences lead Shazam to realize he can just make money as a street performer, which turns him into a bit of a self-obsessed jerk. As Philly’s first superhero (in this universe anyway) he truly is the heir to Rocky Balboa. But things escalate (as they so often do) when a supervillain (Mark Strong) arrives. His name is Thad and, don’t you know it, he’s possessed by a horde of gigantic monsters based on the seven deadly sins.
Look… This film goes some places.
The melting pot of genres and styles really breaks the mold in a way that left my head spinning. Strong’s villain exists in a Hellboy-style, Lovecraftian nightmare, where deaths are magical and brutal. But this is all set in a very real modern city with social consciousness shaped around YouTube videos. Then there’s a whole host of mid-80s glowing gargoyles and magic staffs that would be more at home in Conan: The Barbarian than a “serious” film.
Shazam! is not the most serious film, but it is also weighted in enough realism that, say, being told your superhero name is “Shazam” is met with laughs from start to finish. Oh, and a lot of people die in truly terrible ways. Which actually feels like another 80s throwback — not to the decade’s kitsch, but to its pre-PG-13 sensibilities, where kids’ films occasionally involved tearing a man’s heart out. Shazam! deserves the sort of nostalgia excitement we give to Stranger Things, but for format instead of direct pop culture references.
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Expectations Be Damned
Continuing that thread, there is a Spielbergian dedication to schmaltz about family, love, friendship, and brotherhood. It is delivered with full sincerity here in long monologues. Yet it never once feels silly. I don’t know how! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull off this kind of Family Message without once pausing to say “That’s a little too dumb.” The characters here sell every moment of it. All of which is to say that, if Aquaman was the DC equivalent to Thor: Ragnarock, then Shazam! is its Spider-Man: Homecoming. Only if that movie also plucked all the best scenes from Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t explain how direct that comparison is, but… It is in fact incredibly direct. You’ll agree with me once you see it.
This all reads very personal instead of incredibly big. For a DC action film, I think this speaks volumes about what mattered and stuck with me. Of course CGI is cool and good. I brought a 13-year-old with me to my screening — and he appropriately lost his mind over some of the fights. But, like me, he got much bigger laughs out of a group of foster kids joking about video games and giving each other hard times.
That’s why Shazam! is the best DC film I’ve seen so far. It’s the most balanced of the bunch by a wide margin. It has magic gargoyles and Micro-Avengers built from kids who aren’t related, but just give a crap about each other. That message doesn’t just do wonders for both the foundation of, and my investment in, the story. It also makes Shazam! more enjoyable. Full stop. The testament to the power of Shazam! is that I would have liked it just as much if the title character never showed up. This level of storytelling proves, by comparison to its older work, that DC Films has a long road ahead. But it also shows that the studio is finally figuring out what is worth our time.