If the DC Extended Universe has been giving itself a more dapper makeover since the darker days of Batman v Superman, Shazam! is the pinnacle of taking the DC Comics characters back to their roots. A darker tale just wouldn’t seem to fit for this titular magical hero, a literal child at heart in a big red costume who fought evil worms from space on the comic page. With gleeful Richard Donner–style adventure, earnestness, and knowing sass, this charming comedy with a gleeful action premise fits the character like a glove.
Part of why I bring up Richard Donner is due to his classic saying for when it came to adapting Superman for the big screen: don’t mess with it. Director David Sandberg adheres greatly to this mantra by not shying away from either the tone or the elements of the Shazam lore. We’re introduced to the aged wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who is seeking a new possessor of his powers to fight off the demonic incarnations of the seven deadly sins, which could threaten the world. It sounds a little silly, and the troublesome orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) isn’t above laughing at meeting a wizard with a name like Shazam—he doesn’t even find superheroes all that unique, unlike his new hero-obsessed foster roommate, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). All he cares about is finding out what truly happened to his vanished mother. But, hey, superpowers are cool too.
Billy is astounded to discover that Shazam’s powers transform him into an adult superhero. This is the most amazing thing that could ever happen to a kid, and there’s thankfully plenty of time set aside for Billy and Freddy to experiment with this development. They go about testing everything from what powers Billy possesses to how convincing he can seem when buying beer. Nearly every scene between the two is brilliant at explaining Shazam’s powers in a fun way while also just being brilliant humor that isn’t afraid to take sine bold shots at the DCEU.
Of course, there needs to be a villain, and there’s a doozy of a bad guy. Mark Strong, who previously played the DC villain of Sinestro in 2011’s Green Lantern, is the sinister Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who was refused the power of Shazam as a boy and is so eager to obtain this superpower that he’s willing to work with some demons and lose some body parts. His crazy obsession leads down a familiar path of derangement and killings, including one very brutal moment of revenge, but the character escapes being a routine villain thanks to Strong’s bold and powerful presence.
Shazam (Zachary Levi) has a warm playfulness throughout, maintaining that childish wonderment and a sense of family in between all its vivid visual effects, from saving buses to punching bad guys. There are a host of other kids in Billy’s new home of various ages, from the college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton) to the aptly adorable Darla (Faithe Herman). All of them bring some great performances to the table and quickly become the heart of the story, keeping the kid-oriented aspect in check. That being said, for moviegoers eager to bring the kids, I feel the need to mention two particular scenes where Sivana showcases just how powerful his new demonic friends can be when allowed to savage human beings, from incineration to head chomping. These are shocking displays of terror, proving that this goofy picture still has the strength to take off the kid gloves once in a while. In addition to violence, the more tragic and heartfelt aspects of Billy’s personal life get pretty heavy at times.
While Shazam! doesn’t have the same gravitas as the more modern superhero epics that touch on grander commentary, it fulfills a prudent promise of fun and adventure for the kids and the kids at heart. Not only does the film find so much joy in its playful premise, but it also has enough wits to throw shade at the rest of the DCEU, making subtle jabs at Batman v Superman and blunter blows at Aquaman. In the same vein as Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Shazam! is a film that understands the character and its audience well enough to make this DC Comics geek gush and guffaw.