It looks like the DCEU is starting to gain its mojo, after the surprises of Aquaman and Wonder Woman. Fresh from directing two horror movies–Lights Out (based on his own short film) and the surprisingly solid Annabelle: Creation, Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg directs a superhero origin story described as Big meets Superman. Shazam! has been in development for years. At one point, Dwayne Johnson was attached to play Black Adam. However, Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden decided for a more light-hearted tone with some frightening imagery thrown in the mix.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old from Philadelphia, who has escaped from numerous foster homes to search for his biological mother. He spends his days getting into trouble with the law until he gets sent to a new foster home with Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vazquez (Marta Milans). One day, he heads on a subway to get away from a couple of bullies, which leads him to a secret lair known as The Rock of Eternity.
There, Billy meets the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who explains to him he has been looking for a Champion who is “pure of heart”, and must prevent the Seven Deadly Sins, a group of monsters, to wipe out humanity. Reluctant, at first, Billy touches the staff and shouts “Shazam!” This turns him into the adult superhero (Zachary Levi, Chuck and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), who wears a red suit with a yellow lightning bolt on his chest. With the help of his new foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, It), a comic-book fanatic, Billy tests his new superpowers, while the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is out to get him.
No other actor can capture the young-at-heart charisma while having a violent side than Levi. While he is no stranger playing dorky characters, this is the first time where he plays a superhero. This is by no means a simple role to pull off. Balancing his physicality with the emotional weight, he is nothing short of perfect. There is excellent chemistry between him and Grazer, who provide enough comic relief to keep the movie going. Prepare to laugh your head off when they test out superpowers, which contains the best use of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” since Shaun of the Dead.
Strong plays the best villain in the franchise, by far. It’s no surprise he can play these types of roles in his sleep. However, there is something about him as Sivana I find so captivating. Like its protagonist, he is dealing with family issues. His nasty nature shows in an unflinching prologue where he enters the lair as a child, but gains different powers when he becomes an adult.
For a movie to feature foster parents who expect their kids to respect one another is a breath of fresh air. There is plenty of thrilling action set pieces, but there is an uplifting theme about the importance of family. Seeing where Billy is coming from, it’s almost impossible not to get teary-eyed over. We are with him every step of the way.
For his first movie outside the horror genre, Sandberg hits it out of the park! Shazam! works as a superhero movie, a light-hearted comedy, a trip into nostalgia, and a Christmas movie. Expect to see more wise-cracking and ass-kicking from Shazam soon, since a sequel is currently in the works.