‘Shazam!’ Review: Say My Name, Say My Name

Shazam! Review
out of 5

If you had told me six months ago that Shazam! would be the DC Extended Universe film that finally got it all right, I would have called you crazy. Turns out I was the crazy one for not believing that an 80-year-old C-list hero, whose popularity is decades past, would be the one to finally break through and give DC fans hope of a cinematic future. Shazam! is the DC movie I’ve been waiting over a decade for, and it’s up there with Richard Donner’s Superman as the best DC superhero movies to date.

Shazam! stars Zachary Levi (TV’s Chuck) as the titular hero, and Asher Angel as Billy Batson, his 14-year-old alter ego. Billy is an orphan, after being abandoned by his mother (Caroline Palmer) as a young kid. Billy has bounced around foster homes while searching for her, and he finally lands in a group home ran by Victor and Rosa Vazquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), and their brood of foster kids, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary Bromfeld (Grace Fulton), Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand), and Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman).

Shazam! Review

Billy and Freddy strike up a friendship as roommates in the home, and they bond over Freddy’s knowledge of superheroes like Gotham’s Batman, Aquaman of Atlantis, and the hero of Metropolis, Superman. But Billy doesn’t want to be there and wants desperately to find his mother and return to his real home, so he keeps his new family at arm’s length.

Elsewhere, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is conducting research into a phenomenon that he was unknowingly a part of as a child. In the 1970s, young Thad Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) was abducted by the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and taken to the Rock of Eternity to be tested. If Thad had passed, he would have been granted the power of the Wizard, and been tasked with guarding the imprisonment of the Seven Deadly Sins and other enemies of the magic world. Thad failed his test, and now, as an adult, he seeks to get back there to convince the Wizard to give him another chance.

Shazam! Review

Sivana has a breakthrough and finally confronts the Wizard, only to be seduced by the power of the Seven Deadly Sins. He accepts their gift and the Wizard has to quickly end his search of an truly worthy hero, so he chooses Billy out of necessity and grants him his power — the power of Shazam!

With Billy now empowered, and Freddy being the “expert” on all things superhero, Shazam! turns into a super-powered Big, even paying homage to the Tom Hanks classic, but it never loses sight of what it is trying to do. Where Shazam! excels the most is in not trying to world build. This is a world were superheroes exist, but aren’t shoehorned into the story. Freed from trying to tie this into a larger narrative, something that hurt the previous DCEU films, Shazam! is allowed to grow and breathe naturally, and the wonder and fun that comes with getting powers, and the tests and trials of learning them create great laughs and plenty of heart.

Shazam! Review

Zachary Levi is perfect as Shazam, and he looks like he’s having pure fun as the iconic Fawcett/DC Comics hero. Levi channels his inner-14-year-old to mine for laughs, and he never breaks the character, which is amazing. The cast of kids are all solid, with Jack Dylan Glazer continuing to prove that he’s a star in the making, and Faithe Herman stealing the show as Darla. Mark Strong, who was easily the best part of 2011’s Green Lantern, takes his second chance at a DC character and elevates the material with his performance.

The screenplay by Henry Gayden, based on a story he wrote with Darren Lemke, keeps that childlike innocence, and captures the thrills of suddenly being granted such immense power. The two boys abuse the power, of course, as Billy’s new adult alter ego buys beer and tries to buy property for a “hero’s lair.” When Sivana, now powered by the Seven Deadly Sins, confronts Shazam to finally get the power of the Wizard, their battle is intense, without going Man of Steel-level destructive.

Shazam! Review

Perhaps the biggest strength of Gayden’s script comes from the fact that I left the theater knowing something about each of the foster kids. In a two hour run time, Gayden was able to develop seven supporting characters — including the Vazquez parents — making Shazam! feel more like a true family movie than any of the Marvel movies. That says something.

Director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) understands that audiences don’t want to see Philadelphia destroyed, and he keeps the majority of the titans’ clash segregated to less populated areas. And for a filmmaker known primarily for horror films, Sandberg nails the superhero film on his first try. He deftly balances the big budget action and battles with the smaller moments, like Billy confronting bullies, and his constant search for his mother. And the overall lesson of what truly makes a family comes naturally and with a very satisfactory conclusion in the third act with some big classic Shazam/Captain Marvel comic book revelations and moments. I think I was as supercharged as Billy by that point.

Shazam! feels like the natural evolution of the DCEU after last year’s Aquaman. That film had tons of fun, crazy moments, but was still tethered to the ill-fated Justice League film and characters, which held it back. Freed of those obligations, Shazam! soars as high as Superman, and the wonder and joy I felt as a kid watching Donner’s film was revisited as a 45-year-old man watching this film. That was true magic, and I didn’t need to say a Wizard’s name to be filled with that power. Shazam! is a wonder from beginning to end, and I hope that this is truly the beginning of a DC Extended Universe that puts hope and wonder ahead of death and destruction, so fans not familiar with these character can truly discover why they have been popular for decades.

Shazam! is rated PG-13 and is in theaters on April 5th. Be warned, there are two post-credits scenes, one mid-credits, one after.

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