Let’s state the obvious. If Big as a superhero movie sounds good (with a giant electronic piano that plays notes when you walk on it, to boot), then Shazam! is your cup of tea.
Clearing that out of the way, we have the second inquiry many of you are having. Yes, we can finally confirm that a second DC Films production is, dare I say it, good (the first one is obviously Wonder Woman).
If you haven’t sprinted to the cinema after that confirmation, let’s proceed.
Shazam! works, because DC Films finally figured out what makes a sillier super hero film fun. Suicide Squad tried way too damn hard, and came off as a series of flash migraines. Shazam!, on the other hand, is sincere with its campiness. These are children at the forefront of a comic book film, not grown adults acting like they are trick-or-treating. That’s the main difference. When Zachary Levi acts like a doofus, that’s because he is a teenager trying to figure out his adult body (and, mainly, his superpowers). It’s authentic. Not much is for show. I am being absolutely honest when I say I actually laughed a couple of times to a film that has the usual superhero formula and the jokes to match. Yes. Shazam! made me laugh here and there. I have no soul with these kinds of films. This is a miracle.
Where the film gets knocked down a few pegs is its reliance on conveniency. Billy (the child bestowed with the abilities to become Shazam) is faced with a troubling life-long commitment at just exactly the right time (when it suits the plot’s pacing, of course). Billy’s access to his powers for the very first time occur just exactly as he needed them. What makes this a bit easier to swallow, is how often the film toys around with timing. Shazam is having fun blasting lightning, and he accidentally almost kills a bus full of people. See, that at least creates a sense of semi-plausibility here: if we’re going to make narratives a little too serendipitous, we may as well make Shazam’s screw ups ironic, too.
One other minor asset that I give this film kudos for, is just how long it takes for Shazam to even show up. We do not see Zachary Levi at all until over thirty minutes in. Billy doesn’t achieve his powers this entire time. For once, in a film of this nature, we truly take just the right amount of time to get to where we need to. I was a bit worried when the first few minutes of the film went straight into the villain’s backstory with very little build up, but it makes sense now. The wide opening for Billy to just be Billy was needed. A sense of the supernatural was also required, and it was over and done with right away. The end game was focused on, and these decisions make all the bit of difference.
I believe part of this credit should go to director David F. Sandberg, who usually specializes in horror films (Lights Out being a prime example). What do horror films need? Atmosphere and timing. Sandberg knows how to utilize both here, whether it’s for development or for humour. Can you believe that a film that festers in Shazam not knowing what to do for so long still has a thirty five minute climax? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. For all the too-convenient plot points, the obvious twists, and the occasional sour joke (that running Santa gag was a little much), Shazam! is efficient with its devotion to creating a thrilling experience for popcorn cinephiles.
There is fun, and there is morality. I find the concept of “family” to be so shoehorned into many blockbuster films in such a lazy way. Shazam! actually does quite a good job here. You firmly understand that these foster kids are all trying their best in their own way (whether it’s Billy, his closest foster sibling Freddy, or anyone else). We even understand the villain’s evils come from a place of hurt from within his childhood, especially because they stem from the phenomenon he could not accurately share with those that got damaged during it. This isn’t some action flick that is trying to force you to think about family. This is a family dramedy that happens to be an action film. Big difference.
Shazam! is exactly what it is promoted as: a light hearted, fun saviour of DC’s latest outputs. So many people were waiting on Wonder Woman 1984 to continue the studio’s streak of agreed-upon-good-films. Sure, Aquaman and even Man of Steel have their fans, but Wonder Woman was the first film by the studio to not be divided. Now, however, we can confirm that Diana Prince is not alone with this fight. Shazam! is further evidence that DC FIlms do better when they just let loose (the right way).
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.