Pleasingly fun and feeling very much like a kid’s adventure from the 80’s Amblin era, Shazam! is the kind of film the superhero genre needs at the moment. Another step in the right direction for DC and suddenly the superhero outlook looks a lot brighter.
After the simple failure that was Justice League, DC seemed unsure on how to proceed. Their attempt to recreate the Marvel Studios technique and develop their own cinematic universe seems to have ended before it could even begin. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad had already put paid to this with their too dark take on heroism. It took Wonder Woman and last year’s delightful Aquaman to propel DC in a new direction and leave the extended universe behind.
Like Aquaman before it, Shazam! takes the more goofy aspects of the character and plays up to them. Whereas Aquaman had the rock star cool, Shazam! is more a “what if” film for anyone who has ever dreamt of becoming a superhero. A simple comparison would be Big meets Superman. It has the child like innocence of the former, while never giving up on the noble aspects that make the big blue boy scout so endearing.
Taking a step away from the apparent gritty realism that Zack Snyder had superimposed on his audience, Shazam! director David F. Sandberg has gone for a different approach. There is, without doubt, some stark realism on show here but it is instead found in the dingy Philadelphia streets, its dilapidated adoption homes and the everyday struggles that people go through. It’s this simple set-up that keeps things grounded and it is in Asher Angel where the film finds its real heart.
His Billy Batson has soul and warmth as the kid who runs away from every foster home he’s ever been to, all in the hope of reconnecting with his estranged mother who mysteriously abandoned him as a child. His transition into the all-powerful Shazam! seems a little unbalanced at times, but between Angel and Zachary Levi the film has real winning talent. At times it feels more like Shazam! has more fun when our hero is big but acting like a child, while it is left to Billy Batson to lift the emotional weight.
Director David F. Sandberg has cut his teeth in the horror genre, with films such as Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation cementing his youthful career. His horror traits are glaringly obvious in several scenes, and Shazam!’s rather dark opening is a sign that the film is not all sweetness and light. This is highlighted again around the half-way point when Mark Strong’s one-eyed bad guy wreaks havoc in his disaffected father’s company boardroom. One of the recurring themes here is that of family. Another sign of how realism can be kept in films as grand as these is to adopt an almost ordinary approach – rarely do we see a hero who has to cope with a mother who doesn’t want him, a best friend who wants to be him or rejecting the new family who desperately want him to be happy.
It could easily be argued that Shazam! would have benefited from better editing and at least 20 minutes could have been shaved from the films long running time. The result is film that starts well, sags a bit in the middle but picks itself up again for a wonderful carnival-based finale which will throw up a few nice surprises for viewers. There are tips of the hat to other films such as Big, and they only serve to emphasise the point of kids playing around in a world which is bigger than they comprehend. It’s not perfect, and stutters quite a few times, but Shazam! is a joyous film at its core and it would be a hard heart that fails to find any enjoyment in a film as delightful as this.
Shazam! is in cinemas from 5 April