In a world of super-hero origins where a crime-fighter is granted their power via a few primary “go-to” tropes like aliens, mutations, industrial accidents, or experiments gone awry, it’s nice to get something a little different thrown at you every now and then. That’s the first thing I appreciate about ‘Shazam!,’ the newest entry into the now connected-but-only-a-bit DC Extended Universe of films.
As a very young child, Billy Batson was separated from his mother at a crowded public carnival; police were unable to locate his parents, so Billy grew up as a child of the foster care system. Now 15 years old (played by Asher Angel), Billy has bounced from home to home, all the while never stopping his attempts at trying to find his mother – all without success. Given a “last chance,” Billy lands with Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews, respectively) and their foster home full of kids: quirky Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), tech-obsessed Eugene (Ian Chen), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), and energetic Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy, who is naturally fairly family-averse, is less than thrilled to be there.
Before all of this exposition, and indeed before the main title of the movie appears on-screen, we’re given a bit of the back-story to our main villain. In the 1970s, Thad Sivana is on a car trip with his older brother and father to visit his grandparents. While enduring non-stop teasing from his brother (and a bit from his father as well), Thad is magically transported, mid-ride, to a mystical cavern. There, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) wishes to test him, to see if he is pure of heart, so that the dying wizard can entrust his power to a new champion. Thad, sensing the evil that also lurked in the cavern and desiring it, is judged unworthy by the wizard and cast back to his family car ride.
Thad grows up to become obsessed with regaining access to the cavern and finally succeeds in doing so. Upon his return, however, Dr. Sivana is no longer interested in acquiring the wizard’s power – he seeks to attain the dark power, embodied by the Seven Deadly Sins. Attain it he does, putting our world in jeopardy and spinning the wizard dangerously close to extermination.
Desperate to transfer his powers, the wizard forgoes his challenge of finding someone completely pure and instead settles for what he can get – and what he gets is Billy Batson. Magically snagging Billy off the subway, the wizard transfers his power to the young man by having Billy say his name: Shazam! This transforms Billy into the wizard’s champion (portrayed in this form by Zachary Levi) – from a 15-year-old boy into a red-clad-white-caped, muscular fellow, but still with the wit and mannerisms of the young boy.
Billy, of course, is not fully mentally prepared for this transition and spends a good chunk of the middle of the film hanging with Freddy as they test his various powers and charge people for selfies. Their recognition on the news attracts the attention of Dr. Sivana, who believes if he can defeat the Shazam champion, then he can possess both the power of the wizard and the Deadly Sins, making him effectively unstoppable. It’s up to Billy to find the strength to both fully harness the power inside himself and discover how to defeat Sivana and the Sins (great band name, for the record).
Following in the spiritual steps of ‘Aquaman,’ this film takes a decidedly lighter approach than the other gaggle of DC films, particularly in the presentation of how Billy adapts and reacts to his new-found powers. This is no surprise, of course, as most of the marketing for the film has highlighted this aspect. Levi and Angel do wonderful jobs in their respective on-screen times with their parts of this dual role, but overall, the performance for the Billy/champion character feels disjointed between the two – they feel like two completely different characters, instead of one character with an aspect of duality. Levi, while clearly having fun mimicking the younger mentality, doesn’t quite sync up to what Angel is giving us from his interpretation of the character.
The in-universe DC references are aplenty: Freddy wears t-shirts of almost every major Justice League hero in addition to owning some very specific Batman and Superman memorabilia, and there are ample shots of DC apparel and toys in several scenes. It all starts to grate on you by the second half of the film, and a final DC connection in the very last scene of the film should be really fun but by that point, it feels forced, sadly. The credits give us some “doodle” style of interpretations of how Shazam would “cross over” with the other DC characters, but it’s clearly just “funny papers” at that point.
There is one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene, neither of which will specifically be spoiled here. The mid-credits scene ostensibly connects us to a sequel, one that will almost assuredly feature Dwayne Johnson’s impending take on classic ‘Shazam!’ villain Black Adam (eagle-eyed credits viewers will notice Johnson’s name as one of the three Executive Producers for this film), and the post-credits scene is a comedic “throwaway,” one that has actually already been featured in some of the film’s pre-release promo work.
The issue with the film’s main character, along with some clunky plot work as the movie barrels towards a climax that it really never properly set up or raised significant stakes for, hurts the overall vibe of the film. In DC’s previous films, yes they were accused of being too “dark and gritty,” but at least they properly indicated what was at stake and how one film and its hero or heroine needed to be connected to other films. ‘Aquaman,’ while still featuring much light-hearted fare and whimsical elements, still retained that “bigger picture” vibe, due to Jason Momoa’s titular hero already being connected to the larger DCEU. With ‘Shazam!,’ that sense of true “company synergy” is almost nonexistent, save for the cheeky jokes.
‘Shazam!’ is very similar to ‘Aquaman’ in its mainframe of existence: it’s a fun film, not without a few major issues, but should still entertain the masses just fine, but as a “bigger piece” for DC and its ever-evolving cinematic plans, this movie falls short.