Let’s get this out of the way first of all, Shazam! is the best superhero Christmas film ever. It’s a joyous and fun flick about a kid and the inner super… err… man that exists within him. When Billy Batson (Asher Angel) shouts out the word SHAZAM! he magically turns into a white caped, red spandex superhero by the name of… well… Shazam (Zachary Levi). Given this is another origin story, we’re given the perfunctory steps to explaining how Billy Batson came to having a grown man within him, and in turn, how Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) came to be his super villain nemesis.
On paper, it’s fairly rote stuff – superhero figures out what they can and can’t do, perfects doing those things, battles a super villain, and wins. But, in action, David F. Sandberg’s direction helps the mundane, routine of origin stories to thrive in a way that many films of its ilk have struggled to do in the past. This is the same universe that Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman exist, which in turn has created a generation of kids who have had a group of heroes they can look up to. Which makes a world of difference to the kids in Shazam!
See, as a kid, Billy was separated from his mother, and spent most of his childhood trying to find her again. This lead him to be bounced from foster home to foster home, as he would continually break the rules in a bid to track down his mum. After one more chance, he’s paired up with foster parents Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans), who run a surplus foster home with just a few too many kids. They have big hearts, after all, having both been foster kids way back in the day. Billy ends up bonding the most with superhero superfan Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Glazer), a disabled kid who continually gets bullied at schools. If only he had someone who could help him out…
When Billy eventually gets the powers of Shazam installed in his body, he realises the only person he can turn to to help him figure out exactly what he can or can’t do is Freddy. It’s here that both Billy and Freddy realise that for Billy to swap from his hulking adult form to his kid form, he simple needs to shout ‘Shazam!’ – which then brings a crack of lightning down from the skies and changes Billy back and forth from kid to adult form. As a director, Sandberg is well aware of the similarities between his film and a Big 80’s classic film, and quite earnestly leans heavily on the reference key. Zachary Levi is superb as the adult version of Billy, somehow managing to embody the spirit of a teen kid with surprising aplomb.
Where Penny Marshall’s joyous Tom Hanks flick carried a huge amount of whimsy alongside its well-earned warmth and heart, Shazam! tries (and mostly succeeds) to do exactly the same. This is both a blessing and a curse – if Shazam! had come out at the beginning of the superhero cycle, it would have felt fresh and invigorating. As it is, it’s exciting, but lacks that extra oompf that came with something like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy film. Shazam! has energy for miles, and will likely delight teens everywhere – as it should –, it just feels a little too been there, done that.
Which is not to say that there isn’t fresh ground being broken, with the core theme of Shazam! showing that when you’re pure of heart, you’ll make the biggest changes in the world. Sure, the first half is cookie cutter stuff, but it’s in the climax that Shazam! truly comes to life, with enough fodder to get the anti-Captain Marvel/Wonder Woman/Black Panther drongos riled up and storming out of their seats. It’s here that Shazam! really shines, transforming a run of the mill flick into something really exciting.
While Shazam! aims to be a mostly pure film, it does have some bizarre extreme violence in it, with one sequence showing a man getting his head bitten off. For a film that’s aiming for that PG family fun, it leans a little too heavily on the darkness with some of the villainous creature designs. They look great, but if you’re looking for a kid friendly flick, then this one might not be suitable for tykes under ten.
Now, this may be a slight spoiler, but I feel it needs to be addressed. Shazam! furthers the streak of concerning criticism directed towards mothers who leave their children, and in turn, those children end up in the foster system. While it’s great to see stories of foster kids presented on screen, in two recent films, it is presented with a furrowed brow about the actions of the biological mother. In Instant Family, the mother is a drug addict who – when given the opportunity to reunite with her kids – is shown to be continually neglectful to them, so much so that she simply abandons them. In Shazam!, Billy’s biological mother just up and abandons him at a fairground, and when he eventually reunites with her years later on, she gives him the cold shoulder saying ‘sorry, but not sorry’ and shuts the door on him. Look, these kinds of mothers do exist, that’s a truth. But, it’s simply not reasonable for these stories to stigamtise an already marginalised group of people. Why throw dirt on biological mothers who have either been forced to make the difficult decision to leave their child through life circumstances, or to give them up for adoption? Especially when, in America, the increasing restrictions put on women and reproductive rights may cause them to be pushed to leave their child (regardless of whether the child was wanted or not). Yes, this may be a ‘minor’ issue in a superhero flick, but when said superhero flick utilises a massive platform to represent an underrepresented group, well, one could only hope that that they gave that group the care and respect they deserve.
With that said, overall, Shazam! is good fun with loads of laughs. The actors have chemistry for miles, and they all clearly look like they’re having fun which rubs off on the audience a little. More of this kind of stuff thanks.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Asher Angel, Zachary Levi, Jack Dylan Glazer
Writer: Henry Gayden, (Based on characters by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck)