Review: Shazam! (2019)
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Shazam! exists in the same world as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, since Zack Snyder’s film is as dour, grand, and serious as Shazam! is earnest, modest, and goofy. This isn’t a bad thing. One of the main selling points of the DC Extended Universe has been the free rein Warner Bros has given its directors, letting them put their personality into their superhero films instead of keeping everything to a consistent, bland tone. But with that freedom comes risk and as evidenced by films like Suicide Squad, it doesn’t always pay off. Luckily, Shazam! is as fun as its premise sounds.
Operating essentially as Penny Marshall’s Big turned into a superhero film, Shazam! follows foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who can transform himself into a superhero (played by Zachary Levi) when he says the word “shazam.” Like Marshall’s film, Shazam! has a lot of fun with the concept of a child’s mind in an adult’s body, in this case the body of a superpowered adult at that, and provides a good dollop of emotion alongside its goofy antics. But like Big, Shazam! is also formally unremarkable. Its filmmaking is rarely more complicated than that of a television series, mostly constructed of medium close-ups and functional editing.
The filmmaking is not bad, but it’s workmanlike, only coming to life when director David F. Sandberg gets to indulge in horror tropes (which makes sense, as he made his name as the horror director of Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation). Coming after the mythic imagery of BVS and the brightly-coloured fantasy worldbuilding of Aquaman, this is something of a letdown, especially when you imagine what a filmmaker could do if they approached the visuals in a way that reflected the amazing paintings of Captain Marvel/Shazam by Alex Ross.
I’ll admit there is one truly stunning shot, shown in the trailers, which sees Billy jump off a rooftop at nighttime and shout “shazam” in mid-air, the film pausing long enough to capture the lightning bolt striking Billy and transforming him into Shazam. The left-to-right momentum of his jump and the oppositional-diagonal strike of the lightning bolt creates a visual energy that is truly stunning. I wish more of the film had this kind of eye for composition, but I don’t want to overstate its formal shortcomings.
Shazam! has plenty to recommend itself, chiefly its humour, which harkens back to Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film in poking fun at its concept without adding snark or undermining the actual excitement at what Billy can do when he’s transformed into Shazam. One sequence finds Billy and his foster brother and best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) testing out all of Shazam’s superpowers; Freddy records the tests on his camera and uploads them to YouTube afterwards as a means of boasting about what Billy can do.
We watch as they test his ability to fly, with Billy falling flat on a skateboard half-pipe after floating for a moment, or his ability to teleport, with Billy getting inside one box and Freddy dousing the box in gasoline and setting it aflame in order to urge Billy to transport to another box. Of course, Shazam cannot actually teleport, so Billy only emerges from the burning box upset with Freddy, accidentally discovering that he’s fireproof in the process. There’s an enormous sense of fun in this sequence, as it captures the joy that superhero films are capable of, but which has mostly been absent since Iron Man first built his suit in the original 2008 film that launched the MCU. It also helps that Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer have tremendous chemistry, echoing Tom Hanks and Jared Rushton’s chemistry in Big.
The film also has a big heart. It has a Spielbergian attention to family, devoting a lot of time to Billy and Freddy’s foster parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) and the challenges they have dealing with runaway kids and uniting a mixed family of foster children, as well as the other foster kids themselves (Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand), who all get to shine during the film’s climax set at a Christmas carnival. The emphasis on the strength of family bonds, no matter whether these are chosen or natural ones, plays into the film’s role as a Christmas movie. It also adds a touching undercurrent that invests you in the characters and their journeys, even as most of the fun remains in the scenes of superpowered feats and jokes at these feats’ expense.
Shazam! is not as stunning as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice nor as purely spectacular as Aquaman, but it has a lot of heart and a good sense of humour that doesn’t look down on its audience or its characters. It’s a film that lacks any sense of cynicism, which for a big-budget Hollywood superhero film, is a minor miracle in its own right.
7 out of 10
Shazam! (2019, USA)
Directed by David F. Sandberg; written by Henry Gayden, based on the character from DC Comics; starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews.