At the core of any superhero story is one thing – joyous wish fulfillment. Anyone who has ever read a superhero comic book has wanted to be one; to wake up one day with special powers, to fight evil, to do things no ordinary human can do. This fantasy is directly entertained by Shazam!, as director David F. Sandberg continues the DC universe’s expansion into the lighter corners of its world.
More than heroes and villains, the heart of Shazam! lies in
Billy stumbles into superpowers by random chance; while riding a subway to escape a pair of bullies that he
Billy, however, is not the only one with powers. Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) finds his way to the Rock of Eternity without an invitation, after being brought before Shazam as a child. Sivana and Shazam’s first meeting is the subject of the film’s opening sequence, ending in a striking car accident that leaves Sivana with a burning hatred for his father and brother. After conjuring his own portal out of thin air (the special effects throughout the movie are superb), Sivana releases the Seven Deadly Sins from their imprisonment in the Rock of Eternity. The spirits transform from their gargoyle-like appearance into smoke, disappearing into the gemstone that replaces Sivana’s eye. When the Sins inform him that the wizard has found a champion, Sivana begins to hunt down Billy in a fit of envy.
Levi has the tricky task of portraying a very real case of arrested development whenever Billy transforms into Shazam. He pulls it off in spades here. Levi imbues Shazam with the energy of an excitable fourteen-year-old that has just been given superpowers. His voice squeaks at the sight of danger; when put up against the unamused visage of Strong’s Sivana, there’s a definitive comic balance there. Most of the jokes about Shazam’s self-discovery land, and it’s easy to see how Levi and Angel are portraying different sides of the same character.
Much like Levi’s performance, Shazam!‘s charms lie in its over-the-top qualities. When Dr. Sivana confronts his family in a corporate conference room, it ends with dismemberment; when Freddy is being bullied, the culprits first clip him with a truck before leaving it in an illegal parking space; when Billy discovers that he is essentially invulnerable, he asks would-be thieves to shoot him in the face repeatedly. This gives the movie’s first half an unpredictable, rambunctious feel. You could leave to get a soda during a touching foster family bonding moment and come back to a deadly serious wizard scene straight out of the ’80s. It’s a credit to Sandberg that none of these disparate elements feel out of place; the bright scarlet of Billy’s hoodie that foreshadows his spandex-clad alter ego is as much a part of the color palette as the moody, foreboding darkness that Sivana brings to every scene he’s in. When these parts come together, they make Shazam! into a wonderful sum of those pieces.
If Shazam! has one weakness, it’s the pacing. The first thirty minutes of the movie drag, making it feel like an hour has passed in that time. This doesn’t just apply to the movie as a whole; the pacing in a handful of individual scenes is wonky, too. Some scenes continue on for longer than they should; in some cases, the point of the scene has been made but it just keeps going for a few seconds longer. That said, the snappy dialogue and charm the movie exudes does negate this a bit.
The intrigue of Shazam! lies in watching a hero who doesn’t know better learn to use his powers for good rather than goofs and self-gain, like when Shazam performs tricks for tips. The movie also makes a case for itself as a fantastic comedy about superhero growing pains from a company still trying to figure out how to adapt their characters cinematically. Yes, Shazam! is more straightforward and streamlined than others of its ilk (the bombast of Avengers: Infinity War or utter insanity of Aquaman comes to mind). This movie is the blockbuster equivalent of plopping down in front of a Saturday morning cartoon to watch an archetypical caped crusader save the day. But what’s wrong with having a little straightforward fun?