When a studio as big as Marvel has managed to make billions and billions of dollars off of their “MCU Phases,” it’s no surprise that Warner Bros. has tried to use the same tactic with their iconic DC heroes and villains. Unfortunately, like most cinematic universes that are trying to replicate Marvel’s formula for success, they have focused more on setting up future films rather than crafting timeless stories.
And yet, “Wonder Woman” (2017) and the fun, but flawed “Aquaman” (2018) have shown that WB and DC might be turning over a new leaf, and director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out,” “Annabelle Creation”) has added the newest addition to DC’s lineup of “lighthearted first, serious later” with “Shazam!”
After getting lost from her at a young age, adolescent Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been constantly on the run throughout Philadelphia as he continues his search for his mother. As a result, the local authorities become fed up with his behavior, and ultimately send him to live with a kind and warm-hearted foster family, despite Billy preferring to have a “real family” instead of a “fake family.”
Yet Batson has a greater destiny that awaits him, as through a series of events, he finds himself in the presence of a mythical wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who allows Batson to turn himself into Shazam (Zachary Levi), an adult superhero with electrical powers and abilities that are (almost) on the same level as the “man of steel” himself.
With his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Shazam uses his powers the way any other 14-year-old boy would use them, including creating electric light shows for an audience of pedestrians, getting payback on the bullies that were picking on Freddy, and yes, even buying a six-pack at the local convenience store, much to his later regret.
However, the supervillain to Batson’s superhero eventually comes in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a man who has been searching for a way to obtain Billy’s powers for decades, and now, Batson must have what it takes to become the protector that Philadelphia needs – even if his natural instinct of running away sometimes gets the better of him.
For a character who is essentially Josh Baskin from “Big” (1988) combined with the Superman archetype, Levi does an impressive job embodying Philadelphia’s “Messiah” who, at the end of the day, is still an immature kid at heart. Sandberg, however, aims for a tone that combines both the childlike innocence of Billy Batson and his foster family, with some strictly adult jokes and, at times, even creepy or disturbing visual imagery.
And while some may have a problem with this approach in regards to the family-friendly audience that the marketing campaign was targeted at, I personally think that, if anything, a few scary moments and scant sexual references can’t really be held responsible for “desensitizing young children” (though one running joke involving Batson going into a “gentlemen’s club” may cause some questionable concern).
With a production budget that reportedly had cost around $80 to $90 million, “Shazam!” technically speaking, sometimes doesn’t equally compare to some of DC’s past efforts. While the film’s CGI is no “Justice League” (2017), there is certainly some room for improvement in regards to “VFX clean-up.” It does have climax that does go on a little too long and a script that seems somewhat unpolished in a few areas, so there will certainly be some viewers that feel as if the film could have used an additional rewrite.
However, the heart of “Shazam!” lies within the family drama aspect of the narrative, the film’s joke-after-joke sense of humor, and more importantly, the emotional coming-of-age journey that Batson embarks on.
Honestly, when a high-profile film like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) can’t even come remotely close to matching the entertainment value that a film about an obscure, comedy-driven superhero can bring to the table, I think it’s easy to realize that DC should continue down that road, as opposed to being (humorously) referred to as “DC: Dark and Cynical.”