Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriters: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou
Shazam! has brought the DCEU to a whole new level.
David F. Sandberg and his team have created a picture that has humor, heart and larger themes that at once elevate the material and make sense for the film. Even after Aquaman, nobody could have expected that.
From the opening shot, Sandberg shows off his horror pedigree with an incredibly well shot, cut and acted sequence that establishes our villain’s motivation. And guess what? He’s actually somewhat sympathetic while also being evil…
Young Thad Sivana is in a car with his abusive father and brother, and the scene is bathed in dark, moody lighting. Thad is whisked away to the Rock of Eternity where he meets Shazam, the last of a council of wizards looking to pass his power on to the “pure of heart.” Before he can transfer his power to Thad, he tests whether or not he can withstand the temptation of the Seven Deadly Sins. Thad fails and is transported back to the car which ends up crashing in a well-done Snyder-esque slow-mo shot, leaving the dad paralysed from the waste down. Sivana then makes it his mission to return to Shazam and take his revenge, Mark Strong offering his adult version of the character a combination of menace and bad-assery that lifts the antagonist to a whole new level.
Meanwhile, Billy Batson is a foster kid searching for his mother. He ends up in a new home with two incredibly wise and empathetic foster parents (they were also foster kids) and their five foster children. The sequences with the family are where the film really shines with comedic and heartwarming material. Especially impressive were Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley, Billy’s youngest sibling, and Jack Dylan Grazer who plays Billy’s superhero-obsessed brother/best friend Freddy Freeman. Everyone’s comedic timing and line delivery was spot-on, even when the joke was far from perfect.
While the crux of the story in Shazam! is about family, with every member of nuclear group having their moments, the primary focus is on Freddy and Billy as they experiment with Billy’s new superpowers.
They do all the things you’d expect a kid with superpowers to do; they make money street performing, post videos on YouTube, make up silly superhero names, and attempt to stop some low level crime. Zachary Levi’s portrayal of a kid in an adult’s body is hilarious and he has great chemistry with Grazer. He forgets he has superpowers and hides from danger, Freddy having to remind him that he can stop a convenience store robbery, which might be the funniest scene in the movie (despite partially being in the trailer). The conflict comes with Billy and Freddy each being too focused on themselves, a completely realistic thing for a movie about teenagers that doesn’t involve a central love story.
At its core, Shazam! is a celebration of myth. The name Shazam is an acronym for several mythical figures spanning Greek, Jewish and Roman mythology (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury). The struggle between Shazam and the Sins is similar to the book of Job. The film takes place at Christmastime, maybe the most magical and mythical time of year in the Western world. Manger scenes are depicted throughout the film, and in one particular scene they’re turned towards Billy as he approaches what he believes to be his mother’s house, while Santa makes several appearances, including a censored rant during a news interview.
To Freddy, “The Holy Grail” is a bullet Superman stopped, and like King Arthur, Billy had to be worthy to receive his power. The film references American film myth including Rocky (through explicit statement, locations in Philadelphia, and arguably a stuffed tiger) and Freddy Krueger (a shot of one Sin extending claws).
Of course, the greatest myths in the modern day are those contained within the superhero film genre, and as such the characters talk about Batman and Superman the way we do. Freddy is an analogue for the audience of nerds that loves going to see the DC/Marvel films and spends their time talking about, theorizing about, and writing about superheroes. Freddy wishes he could be a superhero, and I’m sure most of us feel similarly when we see these movies. I think we do become a part of these stories when we engage with them and take them seriously, perhaps an odd takeaway from a comedic film.
DC has delivered a gem that isn’t merely competent or dumb fun. I hope Sandberg gets more opportunities like this because pretty much everything in this movie hit for me. It may not beat The Dark Knight, but it’s easily the best DCEU film and by far the most fun and heartwarming.