“Shazam!” zaps DC into a brighter future

Siddharth Nandy

Following the critical and commercial failure of “Justice League” in 2017, Warner Bros. has attempted to move away from Zack Snyder’s dark vision for the DC Extended Universe, yet “Shazam!” acts as both a love letter to the DCEU of the past and a tonal step forward for the universe. The film is the seventh entry in the DCEU, which began almost six years ago with Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel.”

Drawing from comic book legend Geoff John’s take on the titular character from the New 52 relaunch, the movie follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage foster child who, after accidentally stumbling on an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), is granted the power to turn into an adult (Zachary Levi) with superpowers.

The movie’s plot is a fairly straightforward origin story, playing out much like Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” Despite a couple of slow moments in the second act, specifically after Billy Batson receives his superpowers from the wizard, “Shazam!” has fairly natural pacing, and the plot never feels forced. While certain elements of the origin story template are definitely present throughout the film, surprising moments in the plot lend to the movie’s distinct feel.

The characters of “Shazam!” are the source of the widespread appeal for the movie. Despite the fantastical nature of the various superhero antics, the movie is grounded by Billy’s own character arc: his search for his family. Angel and Levi both play Billy Batson well, each having their own moments to contribute to Billy’s arc. Together, they play the character cohesively, making for seamless transitions between the teenager and the superhero.

Each member of the diverse foster family in the group home run by Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vazquez (Marta Milans) is uniquely interesting in their own right, whether it be Darla’s (Faith Herman) energetic positivity or Rosa’s motherly anxiousness. Billy’s interactions with each of them contribute to the heart of the movie, the central message of which concerns the value of family.

Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a delightful surprise, as his natural humor lightens up the movie when appropriate. His enthusiasm for, as Billy puts it, “caped crusader nonsense” is juxtaposed with Billy’s ignorance for it, creating for several amusing moments after Billy obtains his powers.

Where most DCEU movies have beautiful cinematography and iconic original film scores, “Shazam!” is characterized by its grey color theme that detracts from the DCEU’s consistently stunning visual aesthetic, as well as an unimpressive soundtrack from composer Benjamin Wallfisch.

Regardless, “Shazam!” remains one of the most fun blockbuster movies in recent years. The action sequences are engaging, with some of the fights between Shazam and Sivana taking inspiration from fights from Zack Snyder’s DC movies (namely Superman versus Zod in “Man of Steel”). Beyond that, the humor in the movie is nearly flawless. While some jokes may not land for certain viewers, the one-liners that characterize many modern superhero movies are replaced by more natural, situational humor surrounding Billy and Freddy’s response to the looming threat that Sivana poses.

“Shazam!” is a well-executed coming-of-age film that stands out from the rest of this decade’s comic book films. With a variety of surprising plot moments, unexpected cameos and set-ups for future sequels, this movie certainly has audiences wanting more of Billy Batson and his family. More importantly, however, is how “Shazam!” fits into the DCEU, making its own mark in the universe’s tonal diversity with its family-friendly action, humor and heart.

Warner Bros.’s next DC movie, “Joker,” will be released Oct. 5, with director Todd Phillips at the helm and Joaquin Phoenix playing the iconic villain. This movie is one-off film and the first of a series of films separate from the main film universe. The DCEU’s next movie, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” is set to release Feb. 7, 2020, starring Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.