Review: 'Shazam!' is the rare DC superhero movie that doesn't suck

Photo credit: Steve Wilkie

Photo credit: Steve Wilkie

This reviewer’s distaste for the DC Extended Universe is well documented in the annals of City Pages, so the fact that I didn’t hate every single thing about Warner Bros.’ latest, Shazam!, should speak volumes.

Don’t get this twisted: It doesn’t hold a candle to most Marvel entries, and G.O.A.T. superhero flick The Dark Knight makes Billy Batson’s debut look like amateur hour. That said, Shazam! reaches a nice balance between heart and levity, establishing itself as a different kind of DC film—a kids’ movie—and coming out a bit better for it.

The backdrop isn’t anything revolutionary. Like damn near every DC hero, Batson (played by both Asher Angel and Zachary Levi) is parentless. But where Bruce Wayne had Alfred and Kal-El had the Kents, young Billy is alone, running from home to home in search of the long-lost mother he was separated from years ago.

If there’s one glaring flaw, it’s the drawn-out unbelievability of a parent just losing their kid at the fair and then never being seen again, but Shazam! shoves that to the back of our minds before trotting along to more supernatural endeavors. It is nice, however, to see a unique foster-family dynamic presented on the big screen.

After taking down a couple bullies who picked on his new brother, Billy runs to a Philadelphia subway car and finds himself transported to a magical lair. It’s here the original Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) informs Billy that the seven deadly sins have been unleashed upon the world, courtesy of a big bad bald dude named Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). No longer powerful enough to fight this great evil himself, Shazam passes his powers on to Billy.

As origin stories go, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. Sivana is about as one-dimensional as a villain gets, and Billy’s broader arc plays out pretty much by the book. But Shazam! finds some success outside the usual plot points by keeping its mindset young and leaning into comedy that actually fits its characters.

The conceit of a scrawny kid transforming into a superhuman adult lends itself to plenty of gags, from a superpower testing montage to a strip club visit and alcohol purchase. And where most superhero outings of late inevitably return to more adult themes, Shazam! revels in adolescent fun. This is the first live-action comic feature in years that actually feels like a kids’ movie, and there’s something very refreshing about that.

So Shazam!, despite some major issues, works well as an entry point for younger audiences less familiar with the genre. At its worst, the old-hat plotting makes for an intermittently boring adult experience. But at its best the movie offers a couple good laughs and some welcome simplicity. There are no Sokovia Accords or other complex political machinations here, no wrong-time romantic relationships or military industrialization. Just a kid and some wizard powers, like the good ol’ days. Shazam! is an OK movie, but for the DCEU that’s a giant step up.

Director: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Area theaters, now showing