Robert "The Walking Dead" Kirkman's second-longest running comic book series gets the animation series treatment with A-list voices by Steven Yeun, J.K. Simmons, Sandra Oh, Seth Rogen, Gillian Jacobs, Andrew Rannells, Zazie Beetz, Mark Hamill, Walton Goggins, Jason Mantzoukas and Mae Whitman, among other notables. Anyone else getting anime vibes?
After dropping the ball on their two biggest superheroes, Batman and Superman, the DC Extended Universe looked like it was headed for trouble. Justice League was a mess, albeit a sporadically entertaining one, and while Wonder Woman was a cut above, one solid film isn’t enough to challenge Marvel’s box office domination. But then something strange happened, Aquaman was released and revealed itself to be a big, colourful fun movie that utterly demolished the box office. Aquaman! The butt of comic book jokes since time immemorial is now the biggest superhero in the DC pantheon. With that unlikely fact solidly in place, it’s not such a crazy idea that Shazam! could be next. But the question has to be asked: is it any good?
Shazam! tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a young tearaway who has basically made it his life’s mission to be a pain in the arse of the various foster families he lives with as he searches for his biological mother, who he was traumatically separated from years earlier at a carnival. Life takes a sudden, unexpected turn when an ancient wizard grants Billy the ability to turn into Shazam (Zachary Levi), a rather dishy-looking adult who can fly, is super strong and most importantly has the power of being able to buy beer without an ID!
The concept of an adolescent boy with super powers is both a bit terrifying and absolutely hilarious, and Shazam! does a wonderful job of milking it for every single chuckle. The scenes where Billy and bestie, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) test out Shazam’s superpowers for Youtube views are easily the best moments in the film, showcasing a wry, knowing wit and genuine belly laughs. Slightly less successful is the villain’s plotline, involving Thaddeus Silvana (Mark Strong) who previously failed to be worthy of the Shazam mantle and is now taking revenge against the world, using the powers of seven demons who are living personifications of the seven deadly sins. Mark Strong is solid, as always, but the plotline gives him little to do other than glower menacingly near the overly digital demons, who look a little like tech demos effusively excited by their very expensive particle effect technology.
Still, Marvel villains are usually a bit pants as well, and that shortcoming doesn’t negatively impact the surprisingly nuanced take on family that is the film’s ultimate message. Shazam! is over-the-top, extremely silly and more than a little juvenile and yet by leaning into the arrested development that so often underscores films in this genre, it actually manages to say something sweet and earnest. Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer do a wonderful job portraying good-hearted, albeit annoying, teenage boys and Zachary Levi absolutely sells being a goofy boy in a big man’s body.
Shazam! won’t change the mind of anybody suffering from superhero fatigue, but for the rest of us it’s an engaging, heartfelt ode to the slightly jerky teenager inside us all and our often untapped potential to do the right thing.