In David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, there’s a moment that tells you everything you need to know about the new direction of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). A kid is smashing his Batman and Superman action figures together, making them fight. Then, out his window, he sees Shazam (Zachary Levi), taking on a bad guy. He drops Batman and Superman and looks in awe of the shiny new superhero. He doesn’t know that Shazam is actually a kid just like him, but the boy is the target audience for this latest superhero adaptation. Shazam! hopes you’ll forget the dark days when Batman asked Superman, “Do you bleed?” and when Sandberg’s film works, it’s the kind of fun superhero joyride that should dazzle and delight audiences of all ages. But when Sandberg gets too dark, the movie gets away from him and Shazam! loses its joyous spark. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between in a superhero film that just wants to have a good time.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been running from foster home to foster home since he was a child trying to find his birth mother. In his latest foster home, he’s still uncomfortable and eyeing the exit when he’s summoned to alternate dimension by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to be a champion. A champion is needed now more than ever because of the presence of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who has been looking for the power of Shazam his entire life, but now carries with him the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, literal manifestation of the Catholic sins who grant him superpowers. Billy, unaware of what he’s getting into, accepts the power the Wizard grants him, and when Billy says the word “Shazam!”, he transforms into an adult (Levi) with superpowers including lightning bolts, super strength, super speed, and more. However, as many a budding superhero has come to learn, with great power comes great responsibility, which is particularly daunting for a 14-year-old boy with abandonment issues.
When the movie focuses on Shazam training with his foster brother and superhero geek Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), the movie fires on all cylinders. Shazam! is in a perfect groove watching teenage boys goof off and one of those boys happens to have superpowers and look like an adult. Sandberg isn’t trying to lampoon the superhero genre as much as he’s just having fun with its conventions and letting the target audience engage in some wish fulfillment without the weight of well-worn origins like Superman’s planet being blown up or Batman’s parents being killed in an alleyway. Whereas other DC heroes are very much “Gods among us,” Shazam dials into the relatability of its hero and broad themes like the importance of family.
Where Shazam! goes astray is with the Sivana stuff. Sandberg seems eager to show his background as a horror director (his past credits include Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) so the villain material gets way too heavy. The film opens with Sivana’s backstory, which involves his dad (John Glover) getting seriously injured in a car wreck. Sivana’s later antics with the Seven Deadly Sins (gargoyle-lookling like monsters who vaguely evoke the sins, but function mostly as Monster Henchmen) involve ripping board members to shreds and even biting off a guy’s head. And it’s not like the guy was particularly mean to Sivana. He’s just a guy, and he gets decapitated in a movie where the hero pretends to be an adult so he can buy beer.
I assume these dark flourishes are to make Sivana more threatening and to add to the stakes, but they don’t fit with the rest of the movie which is bent on being sweet, charming, and funny. You can still have an antagonist in that environment, but Sivana’s machinations are simply too one-dimensional and grotesque to fit with the rest of the picture. The film also suffers from some pacing issues where the third act battle drags on for far too long and goes for spectacle when the film’s greatest strengths are its humor and heart.
When Shazam! plays to those strengths, it’s the kind of film where Warner Bros. can feel comfortable leaving the battles between Batman and Superman to yesteryear (“yesteryear” being three years ago) and stick to their new mandate of making sure their superhero movies aren’t afraid of warmth and positive human emotions. Some may cry that this is the “Marvel-izing” of DC movies, but Shazam! is content to exist in a world where Batman, Superman, and other DC heroes also exist, but don’t require connective narrative tissue. It’s a kid who gets big and gets superpowers. That’s more than enough to make Shazam take flight.