The era of superheroes has been going strong for the last decade and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. After missing the mark with its first wave of films, Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics seem to have found the perfect formula for blockbuster hits, with Wonder Woman and Aquaman firmly under their belts. Shazam, however, is a game-changer for the DC Cinematic Universe.
Before I delve further into this review, let me first state that my experience and knowledge of DC Comics characters have been rather limited to the core and more popular characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash and so on. My knowledge of the history of characters like Captain Marvel, who due to this latest film is also now known as Shazam, is rather minimal and limited to a more general understanding.
The film, Shazam, follows fourteen year old Billy Baston (Asher Angel) who is bestowed with magical powers, giving him the ability to become the ultimate hero, which essentially involves becoming a grown up (played by Zachary Levi). Tasked with protecting the world from the Seven Deadly Sins, who have been let loose by the villainous Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong), Billy struggles to find the balance between finding his place among his new family and being the hero he was destined to be.
Most often, superhero films involve leading characters that possess a true sense of justice and carry the heavy burden of protecting the world from evil. This has been the case in almost all superhero films to date, wherein the hero goes to great lengths to sacrifice himself for the benefit of others.
Shazam, however, is another story. Billy not only breaks the sacred rule of being a hero, that is, to never reveal his true identity, but he also enlists the help of his foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Graze), to help him adjust to his new found powers. This, of course, turns into childish and gleeful chaos as the pair go through a series of tests to uncover Billy’s abilities. They also cycle through a whole heap of ridiculous hero names, like Captain Sparklefingers, for Billy. Interestingly, they never quite settle on a name, which makes me wonder if this is the film’s subtle hint of there being a sequel, as comic book fans know full well that Billy Batson’s hero name is Captain Marvel (no, not THAT Captain Marvel).
The entire film moves between this fun, youthful adventure and a deeper, more meaningful illustration of the importance of bonds. In many ways, despite the film’s attempts at light-hearted humour, Shazam manages to depict the very real emotions that stem from familial abuse and abandonment. The core of the film, therefore, doesn’t centre solely on Billy’s ability to save the day. Instead, the film is focused on showcasing the powerful bonds that can develop between those that aren’t blood related. In this way, Shazam teaches us that one’s family isn’t who they are born into, but those they choose to be with and who, in return, choose to be with them.
Character development was certainly interesting in this film, especially with regard to Billy and Freddy. Where at first Billy was a street smart teen who preferred to keep to himself, his transformation into a superhero did see him mature in more ways than one. It was actually quite humorous to see the teen version of Billy be far more mature than the adult version. Zachary Levi certainly did an amazing job portraying a fourteen year old in a man’s body. Not only did it make for several humorous moments but it also allowed us to see Levi take on an unusual role and nailing it.
Freddy, on the other hand, felt like a typical ‘invisible’ teen, desperately seeking the attention of others. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat annoyed at his overbearing attempts to be seen and heard. There were moments where I felt that it was Freddy that held Billy back from his true potential, only to realise, just as Billy did, that Freddy was encouraging him to be the best hero he could possibly be. Of course, I couldn’t help but notice that Freddy was, like most ‘sidekick’ kids, a stereotype. Has there ever been a ‘jock’ who became a hero’s sidekick? No.
From the villain’s point of view, Mark Strong certainly pulls off being the villain. Interestingly Doctor Sivana felt almost as lacklustre of a villain as Strong’s portrayal of Sinestro in DC’s Green Lantern film. Though he possessed the powers of the Seven Deadly Sins, who were extremely horrific looking monsters, he didn’t ‘feel’ all that evil. Instead he fit the stereotypical role of being an abused child who grew up to become a hateful adult. I might need to rewatch the film again to focus on the finer details of the character, but that was my take, on first instance.
Though there were several positive points about Shazam, the fact that the film was filled with stereotypes took the novelty away for me personally. Having thoroughly enjoyed Wonder Woman and Aquaman, Shazam felt very different, particularly in seeing characters that played roles that were simply, predictable. The group home that Billy went to live with tried to include children from all walks of life, which of course, included an Asian boy who obsessively played video games and was a genius at technology. It was equally predictable that they would all be loving towards one another because hey, this was technically Billy’s last chance to stay put at a group home right? Naturally the family would have to be functional and loving, with caring parents who were equally kind and down to Earth.
Narratively, Shazam’s story was fairly simplistic, making me wonder if this film was aimed at children more so than any other comic book film in the past. I would have loved to learn a bit more about the wizard and the backstory about the Seven Deadly Sins. Alas, there’s only so much that can be fit into a two hour slot, so, for the most part, I was satisfied with the narrative. It gave me a fairly broad understanding of the powers bestowed onto Billy but without going into too much detail so as to detract from the entertainment value of the story.
I suppose, from a story point of view, I personally struggled between being satisfied with what I saw and feeling like there was much more to the tale than what we, as audiences, were given. There were a few plot holes that I’d spotted, including how certain characters knew about certain details when other characters hadn’t even mentioned said details (sometimes it’s tough to get a point across without spoiling the film, so here’s my attempt at trying to make a point without ruining the film for you).
Visually, being based in Philadelphia and with Billy being a human, there wasn’t too much in terms of special effects. In fact, even Doctor Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins weren’t overdone, which was a good thing. The balance was well done, which gave the film an odd sense of visual realism, almost like it was normal to see a kid transform into an adult with super powers, or seeing horrific monsters attacking the city. In comparing it with other superhero films, for some reason Shazam gave me a weird Kick-Ass vibe.
Overall, Shazam was certainly a refreshing take on the superhero genre, moving away from the ‘heavy’ narratives and full on action sequences. Instead, the film focused more on fun and family, providing viewers with an unusual DC Cinematic Universe experience, which was well received. Though I enjoyed the film for what it was, as a comic book fan, I personally would have liked to see a bit more complexity to the film. However, I can certainly appreciate why Shazam decided to take a much lighter path, given how dark previous DC Cinematic Universe films were.
As a whole, Shazam is good fun and I’d certainly recommend watching it. It’s an enjoyable film that’s a great starting point to introduce new viewers to DC Comics and entice new fans, especially with several references to its roster of heroes. I have to say, the twist at the end was rather surprising too and Zachary Levi definitely showed his true potential in the film.