Updated: Apr 22, 2019
SHAZAM! is, without a doubt, the most complete and meaningful DC Comics adaptation to date.
Like the mind of a young fourteen/fifteen-year old boy who feels that he has found a place to belong and a family to call his own, let me put you at ease; this is a SPOILER-FREE REVIEW.
First, I think that it is important to fill you in on some of the reviewer’s biases. I’ve been a Shazam (previously known as Captain Marvel) fan for the better part of two decades. The original tales of childhood exploration and wonder penned by Otto Binder and rendered in the gloriously vibrant, soft-edged style of C.C. Beck remain, to this day, some of the most memorable comics that I’ve ever read. This character is, in no uncertain terms, one of the most important for me.
Yet for many, the name “Shazam” barely brings with it a whisper, let alone the thunderous clap that signals the Wizards’ champion. For this reason, SHAZAM! had the unenviable task of marketing and producing a film that would draw in audiences to revitalize DC Comics movie properties that had, let’s face it, not been particularly well-received. For every Wonder Woman (2017) or Aquaman (2018), you had a Justice League (2017) or a Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). The question of where SHAZAM! would fall on that vast spectrum could have eaten the movie alive before it even got a chance to prove itself. Thankfully though, this doesn’t seem to be the case and audiences across the world have responded well to the big screen debut of the “Big Red Cheese". But does it really stack up?
The answer, in my opinion, is pretty simple.
SHAZAM! is, without a doubt, the most complete and meaningful DC Comics adaptation to date. From the characters, to the story, to the elements of nostalgia that will have you reminiscing about your childhood past long after walking out of the theatre, there is something for everyone to love in SHAZAM!.
The movie’s heart and charm come from none other than Billy Batson (Asher Angel) himself. Angel’s Batson is incredibly sympathetic, and his personal journey, an entirely unique take to the film version, will have you tearing up in your seats. Its impact will be felt by all audience members alike; children will relate with Batson’s struggles to fit in or feel “at home”, while parents will grapple with these memories, as well as reflect on the difficulties of adulthood. Batson (and of course his counterpart Zachary Levi) find ways to blend these emotive moments between themselves so flawlessly that you can’t help but be affected by the movies emotional climax.
The chemistry between Angel/Levi is another fantastic selling point to the film. The conceptualization as Shazam as an adult that maintains the mind of the young Billy Batson is a fairly modern conceit (primarily developed by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank whose comics serve as the primarily adaptive material for the narrative). In previous incarnations, the two characters were different and simply swapped places when the Wizard’s name was spoken. The choice to select this version of Shazam was one that provided ample moments for humour and outright side-splitting antics as the young Billy began to explore his “older” body. However, what really made this special was Angel and Levi’s incredible connection. Considering the two were never on screen together at any point, the fact that Levi was so successfully able to capture Angel’s Batson within his character is brilliant.
And, without giving too much away, this also plays into one of the movies biggest drawbacks. When this formula is applied to others within the film, it was simply not as effective. This can be forgiven though, because there was also not nearly as much time to develop the symbiotic relationship between actors. I believe that the sequels that SHAZAM!will no-doubt receive may rectify this issue significantly.
Another factor that the movie simply could not ignore was the “name controversy”. It is ironic that at the time of Shazam’s debut on the silver screen, a character that currently identifies with his old moniker is also reaching audiences for the first time in film. Rather than dwell on this with an embittered and frustrated approach, the movie chose to be incredibly playful. Throughout the course of the film, Levi’s Shazam must have been given at least five or six different nicknames by his faithful friend, Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). It certainly added to the movie’s incredible charm and made for some incredible laughs (“Thundercrack” was a favourite of mine), they also somewhat overdid the name issue… by the end of the movie, I kept hoping that they would just settle on Shazam so that the jokes and jabs about his name (or lack thereof) could stop. While it was enjoyable at times, I feel that it went a bit too far... not only did we have to watch Billy/Freddie (etc.) be bullied by the characters on screen, but there was also a subtext of the film getting in its jabs about the whole situation, as well.
Another stand-out acting portrayal came from Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). While the character’s story-arc was laughably one dimensional (one and a half dimensional if you count his family drama as outside of his pursuit for revenge), Strong constantly made himself feel like the type of threat we had expected from the Seven Deadly Sins. And while the nuance and detail of Johns' Sivana makeover in DC's “New 52” was noticeably absent from the movie (his archaeological background was slightly hinted at, but never fleshed out), Strong was able to create a character that seemed worthy… at least enough to be Shazam’s nemesis. Even though many were disappointed by the exclusion of Black Adam (actor Dwayne Johnson is said to have secured this role for a later film), Dr. Sivana was unequivocally the correct choice for Shazam’s first movie. Their story may have been significantly altered from their 1940’s debut, but the fact that the movie maintained the storied past of the character’s first ever appearance was appreciated.
There was a lot to love in SHAZAM!. and I've barely scratched the surface here in this review. It's certainly not meant to be a comprehensive exploration, but a focus on certain elements that stood out throughout the film to make it the truly special experience that it was. From the movie’s light-hearted tone that it embraced unforgivingly, to the flawlessly executed comedic moments juxtaposed against serious and life-threatening scenes filled with real tension, the film was able to be nearly as perfect as the “Big Red Cheese” himself.
If only it hadn't been missing a certain talking, snazzily dressed Tiger... maybe in the sequel perhaps.