Starting with arguably one of the darkest openings of any DCEU film to date, it initially looks like “Shazam!” is charting a path back to the bad old grimdark days of the DCEU but, it’s not too long before someone says the magic word and a brilliant bolt of magical lightning illuminates the path to a brighter future.
In present-day Philadelphia, 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has a run-in with the Police while searching for his birth mother. A worker places him in a group home run with five other foster kids: Mary, Pedro, Eugene, Darla, and Billy’s new roommate Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). But when a subway ride takes a bizarre turn, Billy is gifted the power to transform into the super-powered hero Shazam (Zachary Levi). But the sinister Dr Sivana (Mark Strong) also covets Shazam’s power and will stop at nothing to possess it.
Car accidents and lost children may provide a dark and downbeat opening to the film, it’s really not long before director David F Sandberg starts to bring the fun in even if he does flirt now and again with (admittedly great) imagery better suited to a horror film. Mark Strong – always a reliable villain – does great work as Dr Sivana, bringing a genuine undercurrent of threat and menace that gives licence to Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer’s goofy antics without undercutting the stakes. It’s not always a successful balancing act but there’s such a good-natured charisma and onscreen chemistry than any initial bumps in the road are evened out.
For a franchise which was announced to be consciously stepping away from an interconnected universe, it sure seems like “Shazam!” didn’t get the memo. The movie is chock-a-block with references to the wider world of DC heroes – indeed much of Freddy Freeman’s role seems to be a mix of product placement and wisecracking exposition – and confirmation of their existence. In a way, this helps the story by explaining why most of the citizenry and the municipal authorities take Shazam’s appearances in their stride sinister opening to the film and provides an interesting context for the root of Billy’s powers given that magic is famously one of Superman’s few vulnerabilities.
The movie comes properly into focus when it becomes clear that thematically, the movie itself is echoing Billy Batson’s character arc. Just as SHAZAM derives his power from the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas; the energy bolts of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury, so “Shazam!” inherits potent traits from its forebears. Like “Man Of Steel”, it’s perhaps a little too fond of flying people flinging each other through skyscrapers. Like “Aquaman”, it suffers the curse of a conspicuously ropey special effects moment. Like “Suicide Squad”, it’s trying a little too hard with its soundtrack choices and like “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice” it relies too heavily on YouTube clips for exposition. And just as Billy Batson has to battle his own mean-spirited, selfish and angsty urges to become the hero Shazam is meant to be, so too does “Shazam!” push back against the DCEU grimdark tropes to forge a bright new pathway to fun, adventure and a hopeful tone without sacrificing the superhero action.
It’s so very close to being the first truly family-friendly DCEU entry – the final hour of “Shazam!” is pretty universal apart from some occasional swears – but the first hour isn’t really for younger children so thanks to some effective but limit-testing scares and it spending about twenty minutes too long on Billy being a bit of a douchebag, the Littlest Craggling will have to wait a bit longer for her first live-action DC-flavoured trip to the movies (Mertmas has already seen it twice and wants to see it again, another Craggus family first for a DC movie). But in taking inspiration from the likes of “Harry Potter”, “Monsters Inc”, “Big” and the wider worlds of DC – as well as an Easter Egg nod to “Annabelle”, David F Sandberg has delivered DC’s most thrilling, uplifting and emotionally satisfying movie to date. This, more than “Wonder Woman” or “Justice League” or any of the others which have come before, is a movie the franchise can build out from, and the final moments – and both end credit scenes (one mid-way, one right at the end) – seem to confirm that’s now the plan.