Ever since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, DC’s comic book movies have begun moving further and further from the family-film nature of the original Christopher Reeves Superman saga. With each passing movie, they get darker and darker in hopes of recapturing the supposed sophistication and serious tone of The Dark Knight. On the other end, in order to further increase their bottom line, Marvel has adopted a “something for everyone, nothing for someone” approach where their films are edgy enough to appeal to single fans in their thirties, but just sanitized enough so parents can feel safe taking their kids to see the latest Captain America flick. It is with a happy heart that I can declare Shazam, a film about a kid unlocking the ability to turn into a superhero, that there is now once again a superhero film about kids, for kids. And that is something to be celebrated.
It doesn’t take long to realize Shazam is the most lighthearted DC comics movie in decades. Jokes are a mile a minute but don’t feel tired and cynical like the Deadpool movies, nor are they delivered with the court-ordered passion of something like Justice League. It is just a genuinely funny movie that happens to have comic book characters in it. While the character does have its fans, Shazam is far from the iconography of Batman or Superman, thus allowing the filmmakers to kind of play around and focus on making the movie they want to make, instead of trying to be slaves to the source material. There are several sequences in this film that just put a smile on your face, whether because it’s particularly funny or heartwarming, which occurs more often than you might think. Most of the charm of this film is anchored by a truly lovely performance by Zachary Levi as the happy-go-lucky avatar Billy Batson embodies when he says the word “Shazam.” It’s clear that Levi is having a wonderful time onset and his commitment to playing this character with the personality of an energetic fourteen-year-old is truly endearing.
What I did not expect going into this film was how charming the family story would be. Billy Batson is a runaway foster kid who at the start of the film gets sent to a new foster home in Philadelphia. This winds up the impetus for a surprisingly wholesome storyline anchored by unique and down-to-earth performances from each of his foster siblings. While each of the kids does a great job, the real show-stealer here is Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy’s geeky friend Freddie. He delivers most of the jokes in the film and really nails both the punchlines and his character’s overall personality. My only issue with the family angle is I wish Billy Batson’s character was fleshed out a little more. It’s not that Asher Angel gives a bad performance as kid Billy, but it just felt like more time was given to superhero Billy than his child counterpart.
While I certainly had a good time with Shazam, I would say it’s far from perfect. Mark Strong as the villain is definitely one-note and leaves a lot to be desired. I also would have tweaked with the pacing a little bit to give the movie some more propulsion in the latter half. There’s no reason why this movie should be longer than two hours and you really feel it in the final climax that just keeps going and going. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great moments that certainly pay off in the final battle, it just probably could have been trimmed down a bit. Overall, I’d say Shazam is certainly a good time at the movies and a reminder that if DC wants to keep experimenting, it can result in some truly special movies going forward.