Warner Brothers has struggled to match Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. The attempt to piggyback on Christopher Nolan’s dark tone from his Dark Knight films, to contrast with Marvel’s cheerful feel, failed spectacularly, with such disappointments as Batman v. Superman and Justice League petering at the box-office. It was only when directors were permitted to break from this mold that we got such break-out hits like Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam!
Shazam! is the story of foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who gets chosen by an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become a “champion” that will combat the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) who is working with the personified seven deadly sins (in CGI monster form). Billy’s newfound powers include turning into a buff adult (then played by Zachary Levi) whenever he yells “Shazam!” Along with his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) Billy discovers the extent of his superpowers (super-speed, super-strength, bullet immunity, etc.), and of course like any 15-year-old, puts them up on YouTube for profit.
Shazam! brings a much more playful tone, that would feel more at home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than as part of a DC film. However, this respite from Zack Snyder’s moody Gotham pieces is much appreciated. Having Billy’s superhero self interact with Freddy brings about some of the best scenes, with lots of humor pointing fun at the superhero genre a la Deadpool. These scenes have heavy inspiration from the Tom Hanks film Big, and have as much fun as well (there is even a nod to the 1988 film with a floor-piano cameo).
Zachary Levi oozes with enthusiasm for the role, to the point that you can buy him being a child; however, it was the pairing of him with Asher Angel as his younger self that slightly wobbled the film’s solidity. Angel plays the teenage Billy with a much moodier mannerism, and this clashes with Levi’s hyper-energy that likens him more to a rabid puppy. Levi is able to combine better with Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy, and it’s their chemistry that gives the film such a fresh and jovial appeal. Angel is able to show some range on his own when digging into the emotional aspect of Billy’s journey, as he searches for a home and family, providing the film and his character the needed depth that Levi himself was not bringing to the character.
But of course, this couldn’t be a superhero film without a cackling villain with CGI henchmen. Mark Strong, for all his great roles in the past, isn’t able to spin much out of Dr. Sivana, and the result is a rather one-dimensional villain whose plan, motivations, and even powers have already been done bigger and better in the past. That’s not to say that the final showdown was disappointing or generic, I rather had fun and was surprised with where a bold move that the script went with.
In the end, Shazam! proves to be a light and fun entry in the DC Extended Universe and the individual success bodes well for a change in plans at Warner Bros. as they focus more on individual films performing well, than in interconnecting them like their rival. The fun banter between Levi and Dylan Grazer provides much of the entertainment and originality in the film, and it is thankfully not watered down by its rather bland and generic nemesis arc.