It has become nearly impossible to talk about the “DC Universe” without comparing it to Marvel’s juggernaut. Judged purely on its own merits, however, the DC side has quietly been picking up some steam with Wonder Woman and Aquaman, which were both entertaining, sandwiching the mostly disappointing Justice League. Next up is Shazam!, which looks to keep things moving in the right direction as we head toward 2020’s Birds of Prey.
After successfully imprisoning the Seven Deadly Sins, an ancient wizard known as Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) seeks a worthy soul to inherit his powers. That search leads him to a young boy named Thad Sivana, who fails the test and returns obsessed with locating the wizard and claiming the power. As a man, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) is finally able to find a way back, and in doing so he frees the Deadly Sins, which imbue him with tremendous power.
Wounded in the exchange, Shazam reaches out one last time and brings troubled teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel) to him, granting him his full powers and turning Batson into the new Shazam — which transforms the boy into an adult (Zachary Levi). Upon returning to the world, Batson and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Grazer) begin to start testing his newfound superpowers, unaware that Sivana seeks to destroy him.
With Billy seemingly content to use his powers in dubious ways, such as charging phones and performing tricks for cash tips, Freddy becomes frustrated, and during one of Billy’s shows he inadvertently damages a bus that he then saves. The coverage draws out Sivana, who attacks a woefully unprepared Shazam and forces him to flee. When Sivana manages to track down his foster family, however, Billy has to stand up and become the hero he was meant to be.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in Shazam!, and that all starts with Levi, who plays the title role with such delight that it’s infectious. Playing a teen that’s suddenly not only an adult, but one with superpowers, Levi behaves exactly how you’d expect someone in that spot to behave. He’s still uncertain and tentative, but he’s also learning the breadth of his abilities. His vulnerability against Sivana also helps add sympathy to his character.
A couple of other performances also stand out, starting with Grazer, who strikes the right tone of frustration and sarcasm as a disabled teen living in foster care. His interactions with Levi represent many of the movie’s best scenes. Strong is also good as Sivana, though given his background it certainly felt like the film could’ve used his comedic skills more often. His toy store battle with Levi is a clever mix of product placement and humour (including a great Big reference).
Although it can be be inconsistent, the CGI is typically good here with the creature design of the Seven Deadly Sins probably the best of the lot. The monsters stand out every time they manifest into the world and are creepier than standard comic book fare. Much like other DC universe films, though, they can’t seem to keep everything at that same level, which is frustrating in a genre that’s basically printing money right now.
Levi is so good in his role that the movie automatically suffers whenever he transforms back into Billy, robbing the film of Levi’s energy and presence. Already working from behind, Angel doesn’t do enough to make you embrace that version of him — something that Tom Holland does so well going between Spider-Man and Peter Parker — so you’re always looking forward to Shazam coming back.
Outside of various references and a sort of cameo late in the film, Shazam! never feels attached to the other DC movies. Even as the Marvel movies feature specific characters they always find smart ways to integrate other players into those films, creating a continuity that the DC films just aren’t matching. Also, as mentioned above, the CGI isn’t consistent. One moment it looks excellent, and the next it looks completely fake.
THE BONUS FEATURES
Shazam! is packed with more than 30 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, and unlike some movies where the “alternate” versions are slight variations, the stuff here is legitimately different with entirely new people cast in some roles. While many of the effects are unfinished it’s still well worth your time to watch them all. Beyond that, there’s another hour-plus of extras with various behind the scenes features, including an informative piece that goes over Shazam’s origins, which is great since he’s not a universally known superhero.
As a standalone film, Shazam! is a lot of fun, and Zachary Levi’s performance fits the role to perfection. That being said, it still feels like more could’ve been done to tie it into the larger DC Universe.