A hilarious, and I mean hilarious, superhero film about a character from the same golden age of comics as Superman, Shazam! is over two hours of nonstop laughs, a couple of which are uncontrollable belly laughs. No, really, these are your cinema drink-coming-out-of-your-nose chortles, so mirthful and silly the film is. The only superhero film I can think of that comes close is the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
Judging by comedies alone, I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard, this consistently, in a film since South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999). Now, I realise I’m comparing the comic writing to the level of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, but Shazam! is just that funny.
The humour here spoofs (not satirises — there is an important distinction) the superhero genre. It pokes fun at the tropes in a clever self-aware manner that comic book fans will eat up. One of the reasons why it works so well is because of the outstanding performances, but more on that later.
Shazam! is the lightning bolt the DC Comics’ extended universe needed
Now, almost as often as Shazam! had me chuckling, it had me wiping away manly tears. Mind you, this could be because I had forgotten to take my medication, but it is more likely because, behind its superhero disguise, Shazam! is a heartwarming drama about foster children.
Set a year after the events of Justice League (2017), the film tells the tale of a 14-year-old orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel). When Billy was very young, he lost his mum at the fair and has been looking for her ever since. He has gone to great extents to find her, including stealing a police car, but all this has earned him is trouble.
After moving from foster home to foster home, Billy moves in with the Vazquez family and their five foster children. One of them includes Frederick “Freddy” Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a differently abled kid who is something of a superhero geek.
Like something out of a Spielberg film, one day, while on the subway, Billy is transported to the lair of a dying wizard. The wizard warns Billy that the greatest evil the Earth has ever seen has escaped his control and could mean the end of mankind. Here, he gives Billy his remaining strength and Billy transforms from a little boy into the adult superhero, Shazam. Of course, Billy can go back to being his smaller self by simply uttering the titular magic word.
As I said, the performances are excellent. To start with, Zachary Levi is just brilliant as a child in a powerful superhero’s body. His naivety makes for many of the film’s funnier moments. Then, there are Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer, two actors aged 16 and 15, respectively, who show tremendous talent at evoking empathy for their characters. The family bonding moments between all five foster children are quite moving.
With a dash of the Tom Hanks film Big (1988), much of the pure joy and wonder felt in Shazam! is highly reminiscent of Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s work in the decades-old Superman films, where you believed a man could fly. On the other hand, the coming-of-age bits have a John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) and even a bit of a Steven Spielberg in-his-prime vibe. For you young’uns, these are the filmmakers that inspired Netflix’s Stranger Things. These aren’t bad craftsmen for Swedish director David F. Sandberg to seek his mojo from. Admittedly, the feel-goodness gets a bit overripe in the final act, but it’s all good until then.
Interestingly, the special effects here are nearly on a par with a Marvel film. I’m not sure what it is, but from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) to Justice League (2017) to even parts of Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018), some of the uneven CGI in DC films looks like it was created at Rainbow Centre, Karachi. But it isn’t just the technology. Much of the action has been needlessly dark and out of focus thanks to the shaky cam. With Shazam! there is no such problem, and you can finally see every action scene unfold.
He may have made some good casting decisions, but the biggest mistake Warner Bros. made was to give Zack Snyder the keys to the DC cinematic universe. Now, as is evident from the improving slate of DC films, the best decision they made was to take those keys away. After watching Shazam! I believe that the studio is finally ready to do the world’s most iconic superhero justice.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material
Published in Dawn, ICON, March 31st, 2019