With one magic word, Shazam! keeps the fun train rolling for the DC cinematic universe. DC was already on the right track with the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but taking a chance with a B-list (maybe even C-list) character who had a chance to reach a younger audience might have derailed that momentum.
Some fans and critics might feel like DC’s big-screen product won’t be fully established until the big names like Batman and Superman have been restored, and the cinematic universe is on a path to getting the band together in another Justice League film. But Marvel seized the superhero movie pedestal with lesser characters and by creating a slow build that stoked anticipation for a big payoff.
Another reason that Marvel has succeeded while so many other studios and franchises have failed in trying to build a cinematic universe is its realization that many different types of stories and genres could be featured within a superhero universe. Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man resonated with audiences because they were comedies as much as blockbuster spectacles. Humor has always been the honeypot for these movies.
This is what sets Shazam! apart from its DC movie brethren. It’s solidly a comedy, mining plenty of laughs from its “Big with superheroes” premise. What would happen if a 14-year-old was suddenly granted the powers of Superman? It’s the power fantasy of so many adolescents, especially those who escaped in comic books as kids.
However, since we live in a postmodern, more grounded era of superheroes and fantasy — and because there’s a whole bunch of story time to fill — young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) doesn’t immediately know that he can fly, lift cars and move faster than any mortal man. He’s granted his magic powers (and adult form, played by Zachary Levi) without an instruction manual and has to learn as he goes along, with the help of his foster brother and superhero fan, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer).
The hero also learns from the villain in this case. The bad guy being the mirror image of the good guy is a tired trope in superhero films, but Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) serves to demonstrate what can be done with the power of the wizard Shazam. The story opens with Sivana discovering an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou) weary of the battle against evil who wants to anoint a new champion. But Sivana isn’t pure of heart, and thus isn’t deemed worthy of the power.
Having been enticed with superiority only to have it abruptly snatched away also creates a believable motivation for Sivana, something occasionally lacking in these sorts of stories. Sivana doesn’t want to just take over the world because that’s what villains do. He wants to be a supreme being (if for no other reason than to stick it to his overbearing, belittling father). He wants all the power. He wants to matter.
(Longtime Shazam! fans might not like how different this Dr. Sivana is from the comic book version of the villain, who’s a nerdy mad scientist. But the screenplay by Henry Gayden is based largely on the 2011 DC Comics reboot, in which the hero’s name is officially Shazam — not Captain Marvel, as when he was originally created in the 1940s — and Billy Batson’s life as an orphan and path through the foster system is emphasized to more dramatic effect.)
Unfortunately, the conflict between Sivana and Shazam eventually devolves into a slugfest between superhuman adversaries that’s a bit reminiscent of Superman and General Zod trading punches in the air toward the end of Man of Steel. However, this battle is redeemed by a final payoff which should delight anyone who’s both a fan of the Shazam! comic books and of superhero movies in general (in particular, one that was never filmed but still lives on in fanboy discussion).
That payoff is one of many surprises included in this movie, which does its best to pay tribute to Shazam’s comic book mythology and DC’s iconic heroes. While the story does take place in the DC cinematic universe, it’s not linked to any overarching narrative that bogs everything down with set-up and allusions to a bigger epic that must be served. Shazam! stands alone and hopefully stays that way. It’s OK to acknowledge that Superman and Batman exist without having to team them up with this superhero.
Yet that’s not to say that there aren’t bigger stories to tell within the framework that Shazam! and director David F. Sandberg establish here. An impressive amount of groundwork is laid with Billy Batson’s foster family (each of whom makes the most of their time on screen), Shazam learning that his abilities can’t just be used for personal gain, and other villains who await. (The mid-credits scene made this longtime Shazam fan nearly squeal out loud in delight.)
To me, maybe the best thing that can be said about a superhero movie is that you want to see what’s next. I want to see Levi — an unusual choice for the role who has a lot of fun with it — continue to grow as Shazam. (I also hope that Batson and Shazam seem more like the same person than they do in this story.) And whether it’s Sandberg or another director, I want to see this world continue to embrace the wacky fun of the comic books and its magic setting. But if there isn’t a sequel, Shazam! does fine on its own and deserves major credit for daring to be different.