Shazam! is full of tricks but doesn’t break the superhero mold

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By Kieran Mielek, Second Year, History

This light-hearted take on the titular kid-turned-superhero is a fun time for fans of the genre, but can it stand out from the superpowered crowd?

YouTube / Warner Bros. Pictures

I was unsure of what to expect walking into Shazam! Previous entries into the DC Extended Universe had always left me disappointed; the few that hadn’t passed me by completely were overedited, gloomy messes that were more cringe than cool. But Shazam!'s marketing promised something fresh - a light hearted romp made unique by its gimmick of a child transforming into a superpowered adult. Could the same company that brought us Suicide Squad (2016) really bring us the next Big (1988)? Maybe not, but this film certainly surpassed all my expectations, proving that DC movies could be fun and raising the bar for DC’s next releases.

The film follows Billy (Asher Angel), a street savvy foster kid on a quest to find his mother who is granted incredible powers by the wizard Shazam (Djimoun Hounsou). Invincibility, super strength, ‘lightning fingers’, flight and of course, instant adulthood are all bestowed upon him whenever he says ‘Shazam!’ - as the film’s poster says, ‘Just say the word’. Credit should go to the writers for making Billy such a believable character as well as Zachary Levi, who plays adult Billy alongside Angel as his 15-year-old form.

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IMDb / Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema

Levi’s performance is full to bursting with youthful energy, using all of his charm and all of his body to bring his character to life and accomplishing the complicated task of playing a character 28 years younger than you. Other notable performances include Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, Billy’s disabled foster brother and best friend, who steps into his role with a similar energy and has some great on screen synergy with Billy, in both child and adult form.

Young Faithe Hermann’s performance as Darla, the youngest member of Billy’s foster family, also stands out. Though she definitely receives a lot of help from the script, Hermann brings a certain comedic spark to her character, making her one of the funniest and most likeable members of Shazam!’s cast. Of course, being only 10 herself, it’s tough to tell where Faithe ends and where Darla begins.

What makes Shazam! really shine, however, is just how refreshing it is compared to previous DC movies. The film is a light-hearted and comedic take on what is, at its core, a child’s power fantasy, making it tonally distinct from the rest of the Extended Universe. It doesn’t exist in isolation from other movies such as Batman v Superman (2016) or Justice League (2017) but the wider universe it inhabits is mentioned subtly, through throwaway dialogue or Easter eggs such as a Freddy’s batarang and a crushed bullet that was shot at Superman. The only place another superhero appears on screen is in a sequence right at the end, played as a joke. This is a cinematic universe done right: films being allowed to take an identity of their own without sacrificing plot elements to advertise some crossover event looming in the distance.

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IMDb / Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema

Unfortunately, Shazam! has some major flaws. The film suffers from a slow start, opening with a 1970s flashback sequence that introduces us to the film's villain Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). It’s poorly written and has that same unnecessary doom-and-gloom tone that has plagued most of the other films in the DC Extended Universe. Indeed, Dr. Sivana might be the film’s weakest link - a boring villain followed around by CGI creatures with designs that echo Ghostbusters (1984) rather than striking fear in your heart. Even more frustrating is how Dr. Sivana’s scenes eat up a lot of the film’s runtime that should have been used to focus on some of its more interesting elements.

What could have been an interesting story about someone juggling the struggles of childhood with the responsibilities of being a superhero devolves into a plain punch-up between good and evil. The resolution to Billy’s search for his mother, his main motivation at the start of the movie, is completely rushed - and for what? To make way for a lethargic final act that feels like the same CGI fight scene we have seen at the climax of so many other superhero movies, be it DC or Marvel.

Despite its flaws, Shazam! is still a massive step forward for the DC Extended Universe, and hopefully a sign of better things to come. But if you’re not a fan of superhero films in general, or just tired of the genre that has come to define Hollywood blockbusters over the past decade, Shazam! may not be worth checking out, as it never makes that step from fun superhero fare to a truly great film.

Featured Image Credit: IMDb / Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema


Can Shazam! breathe new life into the DC Extended Universe?

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