'Shazam!' Is a Lightning Bolt That Shocks the Superhero Genre
Shazam!, the newest DC superhero movie, isn’t just the movie DC should have made all along, it’s the new mold for superhero movies.
Amidst complicated superhero tentpoles about mumbo jumbo like “Infinity Stones,” Shazam! shocks the superhero genre into something simple and familiar but never derivative. It’s also total, unabashed joy.
Out in theaters on April 5, Shazam! is the latest addition to the DC “Extended Universe,” following Aquaman, released in December. After inheriting the powers of a dying wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), delinquent Philly orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) gains the ability to become an adult-sized, high-flying, chiseled titan (Zachary Levi, who is clearly having the time of his life in the role) whenever he says, “Shazam!”
But when evil scientist Dr. Sivana (a serviceable Mark Strong) seeks Shazam’s powers, Billy must not only learn how to be greatly responsible with his great power with the help of his mentor and foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), he must also learn what it means to be part of a family. Besides its very fun leads, Shazam! claims a robust ensemble of young supporting actors who practically steal away Shazam’s thunder with their on-screen charm.
Shazam! is many things the DC films have not been, and it’s not just fun and funny. As if the filmmakers had the wisdom of Solomon himself, Shazam! offers a lean story focused on a single idea: family. As a storyteller, director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) and screenwriter Henry Gayden never introduce more elements than they can juggle.
In Sandberg’s film, pretty much every character orbits around the idea of family. And in a welcome change from decades of Disney-branded wicked stepmothers, Shazam! posits that love, not blood, is the true foundation for a good home. Shazam! isn’t afraid to be emotional, maybe even emotionally dark, but it’s never hopeless.
Though a blockbuster superhero movie in a time when there’s a new one out every month, Shazam! doesn’t push the envelope in the way Black Panther, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse have. Sandberg instead opts to return to the basics to the genre, laid down as far back as Richard Donner’s Superman. This is a movie that busts out all the classic beats — secret identities, a discovery of super powers, learning the responsibility that comes with them, and a villain to exercise said powers against — and gosh does it do it all so well.
Consequently, there isn’t much that’s new in Shazam! — and that’s fine. It might not reinvent the superhero wheel, but it casts it in gold and modernizes the genre for the restless energy of Generation Z. What’s new in Shazam! is that it brings family friendly fun to a genre that’s been grim and dark for more than a decade since The Dark Knight opened in 2008.
Between its unique Christmastime setting, a fun Queen montage (“Don’t Stop Me Now”), and adorable misfit siblings, Shazam! falls in with Steven Spielberg and Amblin’ more than Zack Snyder. Shazam! also does nostalgia right, paying homage to films like Big and The Goonies with its own riffs instead of having its characters flat out say, “Hey, remember Big and The Goonies?”
What’s uncanny about Shazam! is the pivotal role its source material played in influencing the entire genre of superhero stories born in comic books. Introduced as a Fawcett Comics character in 1941 (see the name of Billy’s school for an Easter egg), “Captain Marvel” — he wasn’t Shazam until 2011 — was the best-selling superhero of the ‘40s, even more than Superman, and he was very much a source for the boom of comic books.
You can draw many direct lines from Shazam to icons like Spider-Man. It wasn’t until a lawsuit in the ‘50s, filed by DC, that forced Shazam into obscurity. That’s when Shazam languished as a supporting DC character in comics until Warner Bros. wanted a superhero who wasn’t Green Lantern (after the awful Ryan Reynolds movie made him radioactive) to round out its franchise and compete with Marvel.
Fast forward to now, when neither Batman nor Superman are on active duty, and you’ve got Shazam. And unlike those guys’ movies, there are no overproduced set pieces. No one flies or throws a punch until the halfway mark, and you might not even notice how long it’s been because you’ve spent so much time having fun with Billy and Freddy.
When Shazam’s battles do start, there’s never any stale evocations of 9/11 imagery (as seen in the overproduced CGI brawl in 2013’s Man of Steel). Shazam! looks expensive, and it is big, but it’s never overwhelming. For the first time in a long time, a movie like this has the right amount of scale.
Shazam! isn’t perfect. The film’s reveal involving Billy’s mother, while powerful, feels like a page that was stapled onto the rest of the story. Sandberg’s sensibilities as a horror director also clash with his film’s otherwise consistent tone. This is the lightest DC film in ages, and yet, it still includes people who are brutally eviscerated by bloodthirsty demons.
Shazam! is a superhero fantasy that I think can change the world. Superheroes dominate the box office, and they’re not going anywhere, but it’s been so long since there’s been a movie that wasn’t made for 30-something fanboys. Like Spider-Verse and the recent Brie Larson vehicle Captain Marvel (yes, the movie from a rival studio that bears its original name), Shazam! has broad appeal. The best-selling fantasy of a kid becoming a hero with just one word struck in 1940s America, and with Shazam!, lightning could actually strike twice.
Though it shares the same universe as other movies in the DC film franchise, you needn’t subject yourself to the worst DC has offered (Suicide Squad) to grasp anything in this film. The Justice League are just toys and T-shirts in the background. The only hero who matters is Shazam, and he’s having the time of his life. You will too.
See also: What happens at the end of ‘Shazam!’