The DC Extending Universe hasn't exactly been going smoothly, has it? After the moderate success of "Man of Steel," the critical and box-office disappointment of "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" set a tone for every film afterward. It seems as though the rest of the DCEU filmography is in response to that one film. People complained it was too dark, so "Suicide Squad" completely changed its tone halfway through production. The exact same thing happened with the mess that was "Justice League" and the thoroughly embarrassing "Aquaman." The only film that so far hasn't been completely reactionary to that singular black hole of unpleasantness is "Wonder Woman," so it gets to be called the good one. However, since Warner Bros is apparently determined to drag out this franchise no matter how torturous it may be, we have "Shazam!," based on the comics character of the same name. Can the DCEU finally wipe off the stink of BvS with this action comedy?
Foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is given powers by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who has chosen him as his successor. Now, whenever Billy shouts "Shazam!" he transforms into a powerful superhero (Zachery Levi). Now, with the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) he must master his powers and defeat Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).
The thing I was most worried about was the tone. DC has never really done comedy well and the trailers looked so awful I was sure sitting through this was going to be hell. However, this is a very different tone of comedy from something like "Guardians of the Galaxy," which is irreverent and cynical and which every superhero comedy ever since has tried to emulate. With "Shazam!" however, it's a lot more goofy than sarcastic. Yes, there are quite a few jokes that make fun of the ridiculousness, but for the most part it's just trying to be genuinely, sincerely fun. The closest thing I can compare it to is the old "Super Friends" cartoon; just this wholesome bundle of comic book joy.
Of course, "Shazam!" has way better writing than "Super Friends," but not by much. There are quite a few times where a joke was too predictable or unfunny or the dialogue was clunky. There's one exposition dump near the beginning that springs to mind where you're just wondering "Why does that character need to know this?" The pacing also kind of flounders in a few places. The opening takes longer than I think it should. There's a montage in the middle that drags on a bit and the transition into the third act is kind of start and stop. However, those are pretty much forgivable in the face of the jokes and emotional moments that do work, which is most of the time. Besides, the climax is so fun and so rewarding for DC comic fans I'm just glad we got there no matter how rocky it was.
The acting is pretty great from everybody. I'll admit, I thought it was weird that Zachary Levi was chosen to play Shazam. He's not unattractive, but he just doesn't fit the superman look and physique from the comics. However, he does a fantastic job acting like a child in a man's body. Besides, I'm not going to complain about Zachary Levi in anything ever.
What really surprised me, though, were the child actors. Jack Dylan Grazer is Eddie from "It" so you kind of already know he's gonna be good, but he astounds here. He brings the snark and energy of his character to life and really sells it in the emotional scenes. Asher Angel is given a lot to carry as Billy and while I can't say he fully nails it, he still gives a really fun performance. The other foster kids are well-performed and the actors are clearly having a lot of fun, so it makes for a really good time.
Where "Shazam!" seems to falter a bit is in the effects. While for the most part they're pretty convincing, there are a few points where the green screen really shows. Plus, Zachary Levi in a muscle suit never stops being distracting.
But, again, like with most of the problems with this movie, that kind of has its own charm to it. It's so gloriously cheesy and Levi carries it with a lot of confidence. It looks like it jumped straight out of a comic book. Besides, it's nice to see a superhero costume that actually looks like a costume instead of a rubber exoskeleton.
The biggest problem for me is the themes of the story. Now, the themes of family and our need for it are meaningful. As is the message about taking responsibility for your gifts. However, I feel like there's a missed moral lesson that has yet to be explored with Shazam, in the comics and in this movie. The whole thing about Shazam is that the wizard is trying to find somebody of pure heart to inherit his powers. However, since there's no such thing as a morally pure person he has to work with what he has. There's a real opportunity here to explore what makes a person fundamentally good or evil. Or if nobody is fundamentally good, maybe resisting temptation is the best we can do. This could be a really good opportunity to introduce children to these concepts.
"Shazam!" is not the best movie in the world, but that's part of its charm. It's not trying to be the great new superhero landmark like its predecessors. It really feels like the filmmakers were just trying to make a good movie. They failed at some points, but even that's kind of charming in an "Evil Dead," just rough enough around the edges kind of way. This is the most flat-out fun I've had with a superhero movie in a long time. Not perfect, but even the imperfections add to its enjoyment. This is rock-solid superhero stuff. Go see it!