REVIEW: Shazam! is surprising in the best way.


Courtesy of Warner Bros and DC Studios

Jack Dylan Grazer and Zachary Levi as Freddie Freeman and Shazam.

Joshua Smith, Reporter

Warner Bros’ attempt at creating an extended cinematic universe to rival Disney’s MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has brought us some magnificent theatrical failures with the likes of Aquaman, Batman v Superman, Justice League, and the depressingly awful Suicide Squad. Even Wonder Woman, the best film in the franchise, was wholly mediocre by regular film standards.

This makes it even more surprising that Shazam! is a fun, light-hearted and well-directed film that totally succeeds as a superhero origin story. Director David F. Sandberg (Anabelle: Creation) delivers the most wholesome DC extended universe (DCEU) film to date that, while it is not without its problems, seems to be a step in the right direction for the studio.

Shazam! follows the story of young Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster child who, on a search for his birth mother, encounters a mystical wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) and is granted the ability to turn into a superhero played by Zachary Levi just by yelling the wizard’s name. Along with the height and physique change, Batson is given an impressive catalogue of superpowers which he must use to fight Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong): a supervillain driven by rejection who was given powers by more sinister forces.

Angel carries the film exceptionally well, and his character arc is emotional and well-rounded. While Levi’s performance is certainly a highlight of the film, there were some issues in the believability of his portrayal of a 14-year-old in a newly-acquired perfect superhero body.

The childish excitement of a teenager discovering superpowers and being able to buy beer and go into strip clubs was captured perfectly by Levi, but he ends up coming across as a conventional quip-happy hero rather than an emotionally-charged teenager. While both performances were superb in their own way, there was a slight disconnect between Angel and Levi who were supposed to be playing the same character.

The most outstanding performance of the film, however, goes to Jack Dylan Grazer in his portrayal of Freddie Freeman – Batson’s new best friend and foster brother. Grazer’s character has his own fulfilling arc, and the young actor delivers some genuinely funny lines and some of the film’s most heartfelt moments with expert ease. Grazer is a delight to watch.

Yet, despite the strong performances and fun plot, Shazam! is certainly not without its flaws.

Tonally, the film is all over the place. Splattered between PG-13 swear words and goofy slapstick comedy are some sincerely dark moments. The film deals with themes like abandonment, childhood abuse and revenge while trying to share a warm message about inclusivity and family love. On top of this, the very premise of the film’s conflict stems from our villain being possessed and manipulated by seven literal demons. It feels like Sandberg could not quite decide if he wanted this film to be a grim commentary on the fear of rejection or a fun, family-friendly low-stakes hero story.

In fact, many of Shazam!’s issues come from the antagonist. While there was nothing necessarily poor about Strong’s portrayal of his character, our villain is under-developed and his motivations are unclear. The result is a dull, completely conventional depiction of a bad guy who speaks doom and gloom in superlatives, and monologues instead of destroying the good guys when he has the chance.

The Computer Graphic Images (CGI) of the demons who possess Sivana also left a lot to be desired. They seem like animations of unfinished early concept art and can barely be told apart.

Shazam! also falls victim to some of the classic issues that have plagued recent Warner Bros DC films. The dialogue is poorly written in some sections – particularly sections that include the old wizard Shazam – and the exposition is clunky and jarring early on. The third act includes the classic fate-of-the-world-on-the-line CGI battle, and while this is conventional in modern superhero films, Shazam!’s fun plot could have benefitted from a smaller-scale conflict and resolution.

The pacing of the film, however, is some of the best in the DCEU, and despite the 132-minute runtime there are very few moments where the film feels like it is lagging or dragging on.

For once, the negatives in a DCEU film do not outweigh the positives, and Shazam! gives us one of the most well-rounded and satisfying superhero origin stories in recent years. It takes Wonder Woman’s place as the best installment in the current Warner Bros DC Canon.

Shazam!: 7/10