We all have a superhero inside of us — it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In 14-year-old Billy Batson’s case, all he needs to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam. Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do — have fun while testing out his newfound powers. But he’ll need to master them quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities.
Initial release: April 4, 2019 (Russia)
Director: David Sandberg
Producer: Peter Safran
Screenplay: Henry Gayden
Production companies: Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, Seven Bucks Productions, The Safran Company, DC Films
DC’s Shazam! has a genial sloppiness that might remind you of the days (if you can remember them) when the fates of studios didn’t rest on the ability of one or two B movies with men in goofy suits to generate billions in revenue. And it evokes something even further back: a time when superhero comics seemed genuinely liberating, a relief from a culture that relegated fantasies of magical transcendence to the realm of “kids’ stuff.” That was, of course, before fantasy became the ruling aesthetic and Marvel and DC began to suck up studio resources — before this crap became oppressive.
So Shazam! feels blessedly old-fashioned, which isn’t to say it’s perfect — or even very good. It’s certainly fun when the juvenile actors are front and center, before the CGI moves in for the last half-hour and change. The conflict at the center is one of our species’ great challenges: how to cope with lousy parenting. The hero, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), had an absent father and was separated from his mother at an early age, but even as a 14-year-old delinquent he clings to the hope of a reunion. He has a pure-ish heart, which means he’s at least half qualified to inherit the powers of the aged, hoary, histrionic Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, who’s like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) — the last Shazam protecting the world from an invasion of the Seven Deadly Sins. (Silly me: I thought they’d been around for eons.) In contrast, the villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), was belittled by his smarmy dad (John Glover) and rejected by the Wizard. He has spent his life determined to find the portal back to the Wizard’s mystical realm, not to serve Shazam but to be a vessel for those deadly sins — a supervillain.
Shazam! is held together by the idea that a healthy family is possible, here in the form of two sunny foster parents who brightly welcome Billy and support a menagerie of adorable misfits of different ages, genders, and races. The little scene-stealer is Darla (Faithe Herman), who bonds instantly with Billy in a way that might — with a twist of emphasis — have seemed creepy. But the most powerful presence is Freddy Freeman (the dark-browed Jack Dylan Grazer), a kid with a bum leg and a drawer full of Superman and Batman memorabilia. (Shazam! makes a vigorous attempt to take our minds off the fates of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, et al. — not easy with this crowd.) Hobbled and relentlessly bullied, Freddy can’t believe that Billy isn’t over the moon to acquire superpowers and the responsibility of saving the world. Not to mention that he can kick bully ass. Frankly, I couldn’t believe it either, but mostly because Billy suddenly isn’t Billy.
Angel Asher does not, as you might know, play the adult superhero who appears when he says, “Shazam!” It’s a stark disappointment when Zachary Levi and his muscles show up, not just because Levi is less magnetic than Angel but because he doesn’t seem to be playing the same character. Didn’t the director, David F. Sandberg, get the two actors together to work on some common moves? Angel’s Billy is wary, over-defended — he has had to grow up too fast. But Levi’s shtick is the schism between the adult super-body and childish emotions that Angel hasn’t ever displayed. It’s funny when Shazam discovers his range of powers (the best part of most superhero “origin” films) and when he gets giddy at the thought of buying beer or going into a strip club, but not when he pules and cringes and acts like a preteen.
He’s such a whiny pill that it’s a relief when Shazam says “Shazam!” and turns back into Billy. Angel is so much more grounded, especially when he finally finds his long-lost mother and comes up with a new definition of family. This kid has some acting chops.
Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden know what they have and what they don’t have — i.e., the resources of a top-tier superhero movie. But the film’s summer-stock vibe often works for it. Superman lives in the towering Metropolis, Batman the Expressionistic Gotham City. Shazam! is set in Philadelphia, so one’s expectations are naturally lowered. The kid actors do a good job of suggesting that they like being in one another’s company, if not necessarily in Philadelphia.
But it’s a bummer when the bad guy shows up and Shazam becomes like every other superhero movie — worse, really, because the storyboarding is so poor that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. In the climax, Sandberg misses nearly every one of his marks. A wedgie joke that ought to kill goes by so fast it barely registers, and you can hardly tell the snarled, cartoonish deadly sins apart. I felt pain watching Mark Strong bellow the standard supervillain taunts at Shazam — I really thought he’d be a major film actor someday. The most disappointing thing is that the kids are replaced by grown-up actors we haven’t gotten to know and who are shot in a way that guarantees that we never will. It’s another disconnect. By then Shazam! has earned enough goodwill that audiences will probably be inclined to go with the flow — if only the flow flowed.
The lighthearted family DC comic book caper — a thing you can’t often say — is getting a second installment; no surprise, based off its generally good reviews.
Henry Gayden, who wrote the first film, is going to write the second. This is all according to an exclusive from The Wrap, which also mentions that director David F. Sandberg and producer Peter Safran are expected to return, but that isn’t confirmed.
Shazam was a tough story to bring to the screen, given the DC comic book character’s original name — Captain Marvel — was already taken. Also, the superhero’s powers are similar to Superman’s. The original idea for the film was to include antihero Black Adam, Shazam’s Lex Luthor who gets souped-up with the powers of ancient Egyptian gods. Dwayne Johnson was lined up to play him.
But instead of squeezing another major character in, Gayden split the original idea to focus on Shazam’s origins. Based on a Johnson Instagram video celebrating the film — which he co-produced — the sequel will involve Black Adam.
“Trying to tell both their origin stories in one script, I didn’t think it was working,” Johnson said in the video. He then went on to confirm, “I can’t wait to play Black Adam,” before saying he also couldn’t wait to enjoy that day’s cheat meal.
Gayden, it should be known, is currently also working with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller on a film called Last Human. Talent.
Shazam stars Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer and Djimon Hounsou and is in cinemas now.
“New Line’s approach always has been and continues to be not relying on scale and scope, i.e. production spending, to make the movie creatively successful and marketable,” Emmerich said.
“Shazam!” solidifies that audience’s immunity to superhero fatigue extends beyond Marvel’s arsenal of masked heroes. “Shazam!” arrived over a month after “Captain Marvel” and just three weeks out from “Avengers: Endgame,” the studio’s epic finale that’s expected to crush records. DC was banking on that window being enough time for “Shazam!” to entice comic-book enthusiasts. It seems to be paying off.
“It was a risky strategy to put it between ‘Captain Marvel’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame,” but the team felt it was counter-programming that could live and thrive between those two,” Emmerich said.
For DC, its next test will be “Joker,” a much darker origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime. It hits theaters in October and, like “Shazam!,’ is a fairly modestly budgeted affair, costing a reported $55 million. While little has been revealed about the movie, the trailer plays less like a superhero movie and more like a Scorsese film.
“From DC to go to these two extremes is very smart. They’re carving out their own identity in the superhero world,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analysts at Comscore. “Now Marvel and DC aren’t trying to be each other. They’re trying to be their own brands with distinct point-of-view. I think both will benefit from that.”
“As amazing as the Marvel movies are, audiences have come to expect a scale and a scope and a spectacle. It works,” said Emmerich. “But there’s an opportunity, in that circumstance, to make a superhero movie that is smaller. ‘Shazam!’ relies on a certain kind of charm that makes it different by the nature in its size and tone.”
The success of “Shazam!” is also a sign that the studio is bullish on Walter Hamada, the veteran producer who replaced Jon Berg and Geoff Johns as head of DC Films. “Wonder Woman” aside, Berg and Johns didn’t have a strong track record when it came to overseeing scripts for the superhero movies under their purview. Under Hamada’s reign, the quality of movies have drastically improved. Since the shakeup at DC, the studio scored with James Wan’s “Aquaman,” the most financially successful DC movie ever, and the buzz is building for Todd Phillips’ gritty “Joker” and “Birds of Prey,” a look at female heroes and villains. For “Shazam!,” Warner Bros. turned director David F. Sandberg and New Line, the studio’s division that focuses on smaller-scale movies.