Directed by David F. Sandberg. Starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou.
The Plot: Teenager Billy (Asher Angel) regularly gets himself into trouble – a problem sourced in the disappearance of his mother many years ago. Having exhausted all other options, he’s taken in by an eclectic foster family. This is where he bonds with the superhero-loving Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). One day, Billy is whisked away to another world where the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) is maintaining a fragile peace between light and darkness. He passes on his powers to Billy, who can transform into an older, more buff superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying the word Shazam. Billy and Freddy test out his stacked range of superpowers before the entry of supervillain Thaddeus (Mark Strong). Thaddeus was a failed candidate tested by Shazam and now wants true power by harnessing the seven deadly sins and unleashing chaos. It’s up to Billy and his new superpowers to stop him…
The Verdict: Having ditched the patchy team-up films involving a league of their best superheroes, DC have concentrated on solo outings in a shared cinematic universe. It’s a wise move, given that a certain other superhero studio has distilled their team-up films down to a fine art. This allows DC to focus on the one superhero and put everything they’ve got into making it the best film possible, without interference from competing interests and inflated superhero egos. The latest offering is Shazam!, which in an earlier incarnation was originally called Captain Marvel. That obviously wasn’t going to work but Shazam!, with an emphasis on the exclamation mark, is the most fun DC movie yet. That’s saying something for a comic book brand and studio usually known for going darker, grittier and more intense.
There are three secret ingredients to the resounding success of Shazam! One of them is the script by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, which makes well-worn superhero tropes look fresh and original. There’s no trademark DC superhero with daddy issues here. Instead, there’s a mother issue which is only a minor element to the story but it comes to define what makes the erratic Billy tick. The body switch element is a stroke of genius, allowing for great physical comedy in the script and then onscreen. There’s also a warm, fuzzy connectivity to the theme of family, whatever that may consist of. ‘This is why Superman works alone’ said Batman in the notorious Batman And Robin. Not in this film anyway. Being a superhero in Shazam! means sharing and being involved in a team effort.
Another secret ingredient is Zachary Levi, who brings a charming beefcake persona to his inner teenage superhero. Looking very much the superhero part in a slightly silly costume, Levi has a natural gift for comic timing and how to deliver his lines without coming across as over-played. The switch between Levi and Angel is seamless, so you can tell that they studied each other’s performances to find a common sweet spot in the transition. Finally, director David F. Sandberg moves out of the dark shadows of his previous horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation to deliver something brighter, funnier and more laid-back. He shows a deftness of touch in his direction, letting his actors run with the goofy concept and deliver one hit joke after another.
It doesn’t all work of course. Despite a strong turn from Mark Strong, his villain comes across as a jealous opportunist rather than a supervillain motivated to, say, destroy the world. The climax is a bit drawn-out too, resulting in the film being longer than it needs to be. However, these are minor quibbles when Shazam! gets nearly everything else right – from the comic tone to the engaging performances and the action-packed set pieces. DC even allows itself to poke fun at its own cinematic universe in the very end-credit scene. They can often take flack for not keeping up with the modern superhero film, but any criticisms can be confidently batted away with Shazam! They’re on to a winner with this one. Super!