Film review | Shazam: Just say the word

Finally busting out of the ‘grimdark’ hellhole for good, the DC Cinematic Universe delivers a light-hearted superhero romp that is flawed but ultimately delightful

The heart of a hero Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, right) discovers that his foster brother William (Asher Angel. left) can turn into the superhero Shazam upon uttering that same word
The heart of a hero Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, right) discovers that his foster brother William (Asher Angel. left) can turn into the superhero Shazam upon uttering that same word

It looks like we’ll be stuck with superheroes at the cinema for a long while, now that even the DC Universe seems to be getting its act together. Lagging behind Marvel on the spandex-and-capes takeover of the global multiplex scenes – as the meatier dramatic fare continues its exodus to streaming services and prestige television stations – their powers-to-be have finally begun to shed the influence of both Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise and the more problematic, juvenile and broody excesses of Zach Snyder.

While James Wan’s Aquaman – released last December – may have gotten the ball rolling with a brightly-coloured undersea adventure starring Jason Momoa with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle) takes things one step further with Shazam! – the first feature film live action outing for one of the publishers’ oldest superheroes on the block.

Hopping from foster home to foster home since the age of four, William ‘Billy’ Batson (Asher Angel) is hardly an exemplary adoptive child. Prone to pranking and general misbehaviour that stems from his anxiousness to find his biological mother – whom he had lost at a fun fair when he was a young child – he is now shunted off to yet another home, headed by the kindly Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews) and populated by fellow foster siblings Darla (Faithe Herman), Grace (Mary Bromfield), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) – a paraplegic superhero enthusiast who is keen to break through Billy’s taciturn exterior.

But Billy’s surly miasma gets unexpectedly jolted out of the way when the boy is summoned into a preternatural parallel dimension, where the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) pleads with the boy to serve as his predecessor in an attempt to rid the world of the Seven Deadly Sins – here represented as grotesque, gargoyle-like monsters and now alarmingly unleashed by unorthodox scientist Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who has his own family issues, and whose run-in with the elderly Shazam as a kid all but confirms he is to serve as the dark mirror image to Billy’s brash but good natured reluctant hero.

Clearly aimed at a younger crowd and approaching the material with a healthy dose of light-hearted humour, Shazam! is the cinematic universe at its most relaxed so far. Working off a script by Henry Gayden, Sandberg crafts an unstrained slice of superhero fun whose Young Adult overtones bring to mind the rival studio’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, though it’s hampered by pacing issues which will tend to plague any origin story (which was, in fact, one thing that ‘Homecoming’ had the luxury of doing away with).

That said, though its running time is eaten up by perfunctory exposition at the beginning – the prologue featuring young Thaddeus (Ethan Pugiotto) might fool you into thinking he’s our protagonist – and the beats that unpeel Billy’s initial dickishness feel rote, the premise allows for some pure, childlike enjoyment. By simply uttering ‘Shazam!’, Billy can transform into a super-strong, super-fast, laser-zapping being with the ability to fly – a wish fulfilment fantasy that will have instant appeal for any young teenager (and the young teenager that still resides in us). Zachary Levy’s matinee idol looks both conform to the post-war aesthetic that the comic book Shazam! (then called, funnily enough, Captain Marvel) was conceived in, while also allowing him to get the most out of the ‘boy in adult superhero body’ running gag – the clean-cut baby face and bright toothy smile make him a presence both goofily likeable and eminently punchable.

As Marvel continue on their path to craft a giant, interconnected Wagnerian epic powered by a sleek corporate machine at its core, DC appear to have resigned themselves to making scrappy, fun films that would not feel out of place as ‘80s or early ‘90s blockbusters. Much like the Marvel-adjacent Venom from last year, they may not have the heft and polish of their competitors, but they make up for it by going for broke and not overthinking it. Finally.

The verdict

Coming to the scene like the final stage of the DC Cinematic Universe’s detoxing from Zack Snyder-enabled, Christopher Nolan-inspired grimdark fare, Sandberg’s Shazam! is a lighthearted superhero adventure that should go down a treat with audiences of (almost) all ages. Though it fails to scale the dizzying heights of wackiness exhibited in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, and neither does it have the brazen, technicolour trippiness of DC’s own, more recent, Aquaman, Sanberg still manages to marshal an enjoyable blockbuster that augurs well for the continuing adventures of Shazam and co.