Superhero movies weren’t supposed to be like this anymore.
The current stage in the life of the superhero genre, with all its strengths and flaws, has been its most prosperous. Caped crusaders and steel-hearted heroines have made a ho-hum achievement of the billion-dollar box office threshold, and have done so by way of ever-maximizing spectacle and a collection of perennial Hottest Celebrity of the Year candidates. The genre feels increasingly beholden to larger narratives that span more than just trilogies, their capital-C Characters sacrificed at the altar of commerciality to become just another character.
TL;DR, you already know what you’re going to get when you buy a ticket to superhero movies these days. And we’ve been conditioned to believe that what we’re going to get is how the genre will remain for as long as the general moviegoing populace justifies it with their wallets.
But it certainly doesn’t describe “Shazam!”, the latest entry into the DC superhero catalogue that strips down what we’ve come to expect from these stories. The result is a livelier experience with an injection of whimsy and adolescent energy harkening to early Amblin movies of modern pop culture yore. It’s funnier than Deadpool, sweeter than any superhero movie we’ve received lately, and both its humor and its heart spring from places that feel much natural.
And at a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe is increasingly a jigsaw-structured model of corporate Stockholm Syndrome, the comparable spontaneity and tight focus in “Shazam!” is incredibly rewarding, perhaps even more than it would be if comparison weren’t so tempting.
Most welcomingly, director David Sandberg – joining the blockbuster fray with roots in horror, 2016’s “Lights Out” and 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation” among his most notable efforts – isn’t tempted to live up to or die by what has come recently for the genre. Much like a burgeoning hero with newfound abilities used to construct their own code, “Shazam!” goes its own way to accomplishes a superheroic task: Stand out in an inundated, oversaturated genre where the practices of borrowing heavily from what works and avoiding what doesn’t make it nearly impossible to stand out. It isn’t the best movie of its kind to come along in some time, but it feels the most independent, for better and for worse.
The movie’s timing is nice, too, serving as a bit of light-hearted counterprogramming ahead of the three-hour “Avengers: Endgame” – as much a corporate monolith as perhaps a movie can be – later this month.
This being the first of what is expected to be yet another tentpole franchise, “Shazam!” is still very much an origin story, and not just of its title hero. In fact, in a surprising bit of subversion, this story begins by showing us where its baddie comes from, setting up not only Mark Strong’s ne’er-do-well as a tragic villain (if only his movie-long arc was an enticing as his motivations), but also an important story parallel for how Shazam himself is born.
But Shazam’s origin story clearly isn’t as important to Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden as the one that has shaped hero-to-be Billy Batson when we meet him, and it’s from that decision that “Shazam!” draws its cinematic powers. Most superhero stories teach us that Earth’s protectors are to come from place or situation we still regard as privileged, if not from somewhere we simply can’t empathize with. The eccentric billionaire. The god. The deep-state government spy/assassin/secret-project-gone-wrong.
Even Peter Parker building web-shooters is a feat of engineering prowess your average high schooler probably can’t relate to.
Billy, on the other hand – and in a similar vein as Miles Morales’s as-regular-a-kid-as-a-kid-can-be in “Into the Spider-Verse,” 2018’s best superhero flick – is in a much more relatable, sympathizing and just plan believable position at movie’s start.
He’s a foster kid.
And the places from where the movie shows us Billy the human comes from is much more enticing from a pure story level than where Shazam the hero originates, which, by comparison, is silly and self-referentially instantaneous.
“Shazam!” eventually does come to resemble much more of the good-versus-evil, throw a punch here, fly through a building there superhero movie that we’ve come to know and love (if “love” here is really just sourly construed excuse for avoiding major pop culture FOMO). But the moments that makes it worthwhile are when those archetypes are secondary to the journeys taken when Billy isn’t traveling faster than a speeding bullet or stopping bullets in their tracks (the film doesn’t downplay that he’s essentially got all the powers Superman does, plus the ability to shoot lightning from his hands, and it adds an intentional and welcoming bit or irony that never treads into parody).
At its core, “Shazam!” is a story of family, rejection, selfishness and the clashing of those three themes, with all the warts you’d expect it to bring. It’s familiar in some ways, surprising in others and, taken as a whole, utterly endearing. And it accomplishes that without the burden and plastic attainment of several movies’ worth of buildup.
Crucially, the film doesn’t forget that when it dons the spandex. Even when CGI monstrosities arrive to do battle, “Shazam!” stays true to its roots, finding sentimentality and colorful, fun-for-all-ages superhero action in places its contemporary counterparts are far too overzealous to leave. It’s the cute, geeky, honor roll middle schooler to Justice League’s leather-pants wearing, Hot Topic-frequenting big brother, with a primarily young (and perfectly effective) core cast that reflects its free-thinking spirit.
Some of the movie’s best moments are the ones teased in its marketing material, when Billy is acting exactly how you’d imagine any 15-year-old would if they suddenly found themselves to be Schwarzeneggerian in size. The harmonious interplay between Zachary Levi – the grown-up, Shazam’d version of Asher Angel’s Billy – and and Jack Dylan Grazer as his foster brother, Freddy, feels like chemistry of the most organic kind.
The same shenanigans found in any semi-Freaky Friday situation is here in spades, but seeing Levi as Shazam react to both his great powers and the responsibilities that come with them (sound familiar?) with an added degree of hilarity – and, later on, emotional stakes – brings to mind 2008’s “Hancock,” with a bit more levity.
And it helps that Grazer, arguably the most memorable of the foul-mouthed kids from “It,” puts on a wonder of a performance that is just as layered as his counterparts’. You’re going to laugh when they upload montages of superhero abilities tests to YouTube, and you’re going to care when they argue about what the implications of being Shazam really mean for Billy. In the end, that is still a human soul under the god-like exterior. Superhero movies, it seems, weren’t meant to show us that anymore.
But show it “Shazam!” does, in ways that couldn’t make it more different than the Zack Snyderian DC movies of yesteryear, from color pallete to attitude. With “Shazam!”, it seems DC finally has the right head on its shoulders—one that’s not so preoccupied with copying what other superhero movies are doing.
At the same time, Sandberg and Gayrden prove that journeying into other genres isn’t the end-all-be-all for telling compelling, character-driven superhero stories. That isn’t a knock against “Logan,” a Western in all but the most blatant ways, or the impending “Joker,” which the Internet has already anointed as the best superhero movie Martin Scorsese never directed, but rather an observation of something that’s been missing in these movies: Several dozen minutes of consistent entertainment and enjoyment, instead of naked anticipation for climaxes we’d force ourselves into believing we’re satisfied with just to convince ourselves it’s all been worthwhile.
“Shazam!” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
Directed by David Sandberg