Fourteen-year-old Billy Batson has had a pretty rough time of things; accidentally separated from his mother at a fair as a child, he’s spent the subsequent years running away from various foster homes in order to track her down, often getting into trouble in the process.
His latest foster home is run by the kindly Victor and Rosa Vasquez – themselves former foster children – who are determined to give him another chance. His new roommate is superhero enthusiast Freddy Freeman and it’s defending his disabled sibling from bullies that sees him summoned to a strange place known as the Rock of Eternity by the last wizard in existence. The wizard has been searching for a champion to pass on his powers to, in order to keep the Seven Deadly Sins contained. Billy is that champion, able to transform into an adult superhero when he says the wizard’s name: Shazam. But the wizard went through a lot of potential champions before he got to Billy and one of them is determined to acquire those powers for himself.
So, DC seem to be continuing to play catch up with Marvel by following their rival’s plan backwards, releasing consistently good solo movies – Wonder Woman, Aquaman – after their disappointing team-up efforts, and Shazam! is no exception. It’s been called “BIG with superpowers” and, as a thumbnail description, that’s pretty accurate. (Even the filmmakers seem agree, as a certain floor piano makes a cameo appearance.) As a teenager (Asher Angel) Batson is world-weary and cynical, with hints of a sense of humour and good heart beneath the exterior, conversely, it is by transforming into his adult form (Zachary Levi) that he’s able to express his childlike qualities, including his sheer enthusiasm at having superpowers (the Wisdom of Solomon, the Strength of Hercules, the Stamina of Atlas, the Powers of Zeus the courage of Achilles (and near indestructibility) and the speed of Mercury, which also provides flight). Having previously played a nerd turned government agent in Chuck, Levi is perfect casting – he is Shazam the same way Ryan Reynolds is Deadpool. He can play sincere as well as funny and his and Angel’s chemistry with Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy (IT’s Eddie Kaspbrak) that not only makes a lot of the comedy sequences work but also the emotional ones.
But, of course, no superhero is complete without a supervillain, and Shazam! has a good one. Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) was one of those summoned by the wizard as a potential champion, an outcast in a wealthy family, abused emotionally and verbally by his odious father and older brother, but he fails the wizard’s test, briefly tempted by the voices of the sins. Sivana has spent his entire life looking to find a way back to Rock of Eternity, and now that he’s found it, he will get revenge on those who wronged him and take Shazam’s powers for himself. Strong, like everyone else, is clearly having a whale of a time, managing the what-should-be-impossible feat of giving a performance that is understated, and yet, at the same time, incredibly hammy (in a good way). He also makes Sivana an, if not sympathetic, understandable villain. Yes the wizard’s (Djimon Hounsou, who’s been all over the world of superheroes at the moment, starring in Aquaman as well as reprising his role from Guardians of the Galaxy in Captain Marvel) task was an important one that the fate of humanity rested on, but offering (an emotionally vulnerable) child the possibility of something extraordinary, holding them to impossibly high standards, tell them they’ll never amount to anything when they show one moment of human weakness and then send them back to their life as violently as you ripped them from it, is a bit of a dickish move, and arguably created the scenario his rigorous criteria was trying to avoid in the first place. (The wizards once chose their champion poorly and he abused his powers, releasing the seven deadly sins into the world; a reference to potential future villain and fan favourite, Black Adam.)
Like all DC’s solo outings, the film clearly lives in their extended universe but wears the connection lightly (including a kind-of cameo from a certain someone and a rather funny post-credits scene). Full of fun and heart, Shazam! is certainly one of DC’s best yet, as well as just being a great film in general. Perfect if you’re looking for a good time. Let’s hope more adventures with “the big red cheese” are forthcoming!