As an avid comic book fan, let me tell you… This glut of superhero films we’ve been enduring for the past decade or so has been absolutely exhausting. Quality control ensures that each of these films look the part, but very few have captured that kinetic childhood joy of flipping through comic book panels and dreaming about how incredible it would be if you could fly too. Much like any medium, the best comic books still have a strong thematic subtext to them, but their initial appeal was always some kind of wish fulfillment, clarified by making us care for expertly drawn and immediately recognizable characters.
Shazam! is the latest superhero film to come out of this modern deluge, but it’s one of the few that really captures that whimsical joy of self-discovery without ever really feeling snide about it. Think if the Amblin of yesteryear made a superhero film, or if B-movie maestros Joe Johnston and Joe Dante tag-team directed a superhero film in the mid 1980s — that’s pretty much what Shazam! feels like, and that’s a good thing indeed. The film utilizes its Big meets Superman premise, where one magic word can turn a scrawny teenager into an adult adonis, to capture a kind of wish fulfillment that makes the genre so endearing for its littlest audience members. Not since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man has the discovery of superpowers felt so liberating and exciting. In fact, it’s very clear that director David F. Sandberg was very inspired by Raimi’s superhero trilogy because Shazam! takes many cues from those films. Chiefly, the film has an actual thematic through-line that its always consciously exploring. The film is all about family: our ability to love others and accept love in return.
The story follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage orphan who continues to run away from various foster homes in an attempt to find his long lost mom. One of these attempts puts him into a group home filled with the kindest, most warmhearted foster parents and foster siblings in the world. And yet, Billy wants nothing to do with them. But when he stands up for his disabled, superhero-obsessed foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) when bullies harass him, Billy is summoned by the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Honsou). The aged sorcerer passes his powers onto Billy, so that he can protect the world in his absence. To activate them, all Billy has to say is SHAZAM!, and just like magic, Billy becomes older (and now portrayed by Zachary Levi) and has a myriad of superpowers. Billy calls upon Freddy for help, since the superhero shtick is totally his thing, and the two begin to clown around, having fun discovering what Billy’s newfound powers can do.
Of course, it’s not a superhero film without a bad guy, right? Shazam! does something interesting with its villain, running their story almost parallel to Billy’s before the two finally meet somewhere around the midpoint. It’s a smart narrative move that not only allows for some great buildup, but it also gives the film a chance to continue its thematic exploration of family within its villain. As a kid, Thaddeus was always belittled by his older brother and cruel father. He was also called upon by Shazam, but was unable to pass his test, tempted by the embodiment of the Seven Deadly Sins who were locked away in stone by Shazam. Distraught, Thaddeus dedicated the rest of his life towards finding out how to get back to Shazam, so that he could claim the Eye of Sin and absorb the Seven Deadly Sins in order to exact vengeance upon his cruel family members and have enough power to ensure that nobody would ever belittle him again. Billy and Thaddeus aren’t unlike. Both feel isolated because of their familial situation. Billy refuses to open up to others because he’s dedicated to finding his mom, whereas Thaddeus has completely closed himself off because all his family ever did was hurt him. And both attain great power. Billy uses it for frivolity, whereas Thaddeus deploys it to get revenge. In some ways, this is the most thematically astute pairing of a hero and a villain we’ve gotten in a superhero film in a long while. It’s not because the pair are the polar opposite, or that Thaddeus embodies something that Billy lacks. No, it’s because the two are intertwined without knowing it. If Shazam! is a coming-of-age story of sorts, then Thaddeus represents what Billy could become if he refuses to allow love into his life again. There’s a fantastic scene towards the end where Billy is confronted with the truth about his mom, and the film handles it expertly, because we’ve seen how Thaddeus dealt with his estranged family members: he had the Seven Sins devour them.
What Billy has that Thaddeus never did was a foster family who were willing to accept him and love him even if he wasn’t willing to do the same in return. It’s the rare superhero film where the burden doesn’t fall squarely on the hero’s shoulders. Instead, Billy has his foster siblings that refuse to let him go against Thaddeus alone, even when it means putting themselves directly in danger. When the foster family unites together, this is the film at its strongest. There’s a beautiful selflessness to how Shazam! portrays familial love. The foster characters are orphaned but never hopeless. They don’t lament the loss of their traditional family so much as they build bonds towards a fostered one. It’s a striking portrayal of how important genuine communal love can be, very reminiscent of the inherent loving power that a united body of Christ can have. But even more important is our ability to be able to accept the love we are given. For Billy, it takes a long time to accept that he can be loved by anyone other than his mom, and that’s a lesson poor Thaddeus was never able to realize.
Shazam! is also genuinely joyous. It’s been a long time since superhero films remembered that there’s a latent thrill to the notion of superpowers. As mentioned earlier, there’s a wondrous sense of discovery when it comes to Billy using his powers. With Freddy’s ecstatic help, the pair do what any pair of teenage boys would do if they had newfound powers: they goof off. But it’s a really clever way to parlay the film’s sense of childishness with a subtle maturation. It’s Billy uncovering his potential without even realizing that’s what he’s doing. But his true powers are only unlocked when he acts out of selflessness, such as defending his foster family from Thaddeus’s attempts to reach them so that he can steal Billy’s power too. The childlike wonder is also present in other ways, such as how Zachary Levi plays the most charismatic man-child ever, or how the finale takes place in the wintry wonderland of a state fair during December.
It’s also a fantastic throwback to a bygone era, the 1980s, a time when the filmmakers themselves were just kids. And it doesn’t need to be obvious in order to achieve this. There are no real direct references to ’80s pop culture, aside from a few musical cues that are pretty innocuous. Instead, the film uses its thematic heft and some directorial choices to evoke the feelings of a dangerous family adventure. It doesn’t hurt that the Seven Deadly Sins are animated like herky-jerky puppets that wouldn’t feel out of place in Ghostbusters. There’s a surprising amount of real horror within the otherwise lighthearted film, which makes sense, considering director Sandberg directed several horror shorts and two horror films for Warner Bros. before tackling this one. That harkens back to a time when family entertainment wasn’t afraid to be a little risky. There’s a genuinely frightening scene within a corporate boardroom involving the Seven Sins that takes plenty of inspiration from Spider-Man 2‘s equally shocking hospital sequence. At first, the tonal changes feel pretty jarring, but when it becomes apparent that the film is purposefully utilizing the two extremes to further explore Billy and Thaddeus’s parallel developments, it makes more sense. If the film is all about the power of love and the jubilance of childhood, then puncturing that atmosphere with reminders that there’s genuine darkness and evil in the world almost feels right.
Still, the film has some problems of its own that hold it back from being entirely championed. It’s the kind of nostalgic storytelling that tends towards melodrama, and that’s just not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. For as thematically relevant as Thaddeus is, as a character and in the storytelling, he comes out feeling a little shortchanged by the end. So he’s a better villain than most, but not quite as memorable as he could’ve been, despite a great, chilly performance by Mark Strong. The film’s also got some pacing issues in the first half, meaning that it kind of takes awhile for all the pieces to finally string together (but when they do, it’s great). But most important, the film just looks sorta… flat. The cinematography and production design are passable, and while neither really takes away from the film, they don’t really add much to it either. This is the kind of story that cries out of for some out-of-the-box filmmaking. If the film had used more interesting camera angles and colors, then it could’ve been really something special.
But just like Zachary Levi in the title role, when Shazam! is being ecstatic and fun, it’s impossibly charming. It’s always been easier for me to swallow a film that’s got apparent flaws if those flaws are leavened by a genuine sense of ambition. Shazam! has that kind of sweet, scrappy, endearing quality that marks the very ’80s films it draws its inspirations from. If only more superhero films dared to be a little different and remembered the genuine power of the comics they’re inspired by. Maybe we’ll find the magic word for that someday.