Review by C.J. Bunce
Make no mistake, Billy Batson aka Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel (aka Shazam since 2012) has always been the most difficult to fold into the DC pantheon of superheroes. With Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman–the trinity at the top of DC Comics for so long–audiences always know much of what those characters are going to bring to a story even before they walk into the theater. To be fair, Billy wasn’t a DC original, shuffled much later into the DC universe because of some decades-long legal tedium. Billy Batson is a kid who suddenly becomes a superhero, so the trailers have been compared to Penny Marshall’s Big, another story about a kid suddenly dealing with being grown-up. And that is, indeed, part of Shazam! The movie is also part origin story, because although Shazam! adheres to Billy’s origin story going back to the 1940s (just as Captain America: The First Avenger adhered to its source material), much of the audience that saw the character in his heyday–when he was even more popular and well-known than Superman–aren’t around to make up the target moviegoing audience. But Big and an origin story is just the beginning.
You know it when you watch a movie unfold and realize something great is happening. DC Entertainment–the movie guys–finally paid attention to DC Comics–the actual writers and artists who built the character from the ground up–and at last delivered what this comic book reader has always wanted. Shazam!, the story, Zachary Levi‘s superhero, and a new young actor named Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy’s friend Freddy–are fantastic. The magic, wonder, and heart of DC Comics is finally back in the theaters. It’s a gamechanger for the DC universe, because it finally steps away from Zack Snyder’s dark and brooding Justice League and returns it to the roots of DC Comics and DC At the Movies that we first got a taste of with Christopher Reeve’s first Superman and Michael Keaton’s first Batman. So if the executives at DC are paying attention, and audiences agree once the film hits general release April 5, this could be an opportunity for a switch-up–an excuse to build a new Marvel-level superhero film universe around the new, amazingly fun and appealing superhero characters in this film.
At its core, the story by new screenwriter Henry Gayden updating a script by Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After, Jack the Giant Slayer, Goosebumps) is about a foster family and the importance of family, so don’t think this is another frivolous superhero movie to be easily dismissed. As with Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it’s loaded with emotional beats, and it’s all heart. What do kids care about, and what are they afraid of? The film takes some time to look seriously at these things. It’s not only laugh-out-loud funny in spots, expect some snorts, too. But look for some emotional pangs along the way, on par with an oft-forgotten superhero movie that may have more heart than any other, the 1980 John Ritter sleeper (and one of my favorites) Hero At Large. Which makes Shazam! also a movie for fans who count Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Incredibles among their most favorite superhero movies.
The dark nature of the villainy, some real-world family distress topics, some 1980s violence a la RoboCop, and some crude language may push the target audience age upward for some parents, but for families with mature kids and adults that like superheroes–and monsters like you’d find in The Lord of the Rings–this one is a must-see.
Ultimately the key will be re-watchability. But if audience reactions are like mine, we may be coming back in a month or a year with Shazam! holding steady in our all-time Top 10 superhero movie list (a big feat, as the total list of major superhero movies now is up to more than 60). Yep, it’s that good.
So, without laying on too much grandiose praise, consider what you’re in for:
- Great fun for young audiences and the young at heart
- A great story about family
- The best scenes aren’t in the trailer
- Ticks all the superhero movie boxes, including candidate for the best montage superhero training sequence
- Faithful to the source material more than most superhero movies, updating a 1940s origin story to 2019 for a modern kid audience
- Great casting–utilizing mainly unknown actors (only Mark Strong, Zachary Levi, and Djimon Hounsou will be familiar faces to most), Shazam! features an amazingly good ensemble cast, including Grace Fulton, and younger actors Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Asher Angel, and a breakout performance by It star (and Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer’s nephew) Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy, who steals every scene
- Captain Marvel aka Shazam has always been a difficult character to imagine on the big screen, yet Levi transforms completely and perfectly into grown-up Billy Batson aka the world’s mightiest mortal–this is a big win for Levi fans
- Not just a frilly DC Comics superhero movie. This might be DC Comics’ best superhero comics adaptation, period.
- Another great Philadelphia-based story arrives at the movies
- Some neat Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings-inspired monster creations by Mike Wassel, Kevin McIlwain, and VFX studios Mr. X and MPC that I would have loved to see in a movie as a kid (and love to see as an adult)
- A powerful, heroic score composed by Benjamin Wallfisch (Bladerunner 2049, Hidden Figures, Hellboy)
- Add to Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos another great comics villain this season with Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana
- A sequel is a certainty
- Look for two codas during the end credits and comics Easter eggs peppered throughout
- A slate of surprises and unexpected characters along the way, including one for Jeff Smith fans
Does Billy play in the comics as a bit corny, just as any character in 1940s-1950s comics did? Sure, but no more so than his similar Marvel Comics counterpart, the nerdy and angsty Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation), directing his first major mainstream film, finds the right balance for the new Billy and his family.
It’s not a film you’ll want to skip. Fun for the entire family and a welcome addition to the DC universe of movies that surpasses Warner Brothers’ predecessor films, Shazam! enters general release in theaters in the U.S. beginning April 5, 2019.