Shazam, or Captain Marvel if you’re a classic DC fan like myself, is a hero that doesn’t get as much of the spotlight as he deserves. The character is celebrating his 80th birthday this year and there was a point in time that he was more popular than Superman himself. Yet in recent years, he’s become a footnote to comic history, losing even his original name to Marvel’s trademarks. Sure, Carol Danvers may be the Captain Marvel that people will associate the name with, but Billy Batson will always be Captain Marvel to me. A pure, righteous soul that stands up to the bullies of the world with powers that rival Superman.
Name issues aside, DC is celebrating Billy’s birthday properly with Shazam!, a film that adapts Geoff John’s 2012 mixed reboot of the character. Out goes Billy’s purity, in goes an angsty Billy with a chip on his shoulder and an attitude to boot. Much like the original story, your enjoyment of Shazam! is going to hinge on how much you can tolerate Billy Batson.
Director: David Sandberg
Release date: April 6, 2019
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old foster kid that frequently runs away from his foster families in an attempt to find his long lost parents. After running away one too many times, he lands in Philadelphia with the Vasquez family and the various other foster kids that live with them. Billy barely attempts to fit in, but when a group of bullies threatens one of his new siblings, superhero fanboy Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy comes to his defense but is forced to run away from the bullies. While escaping, he’s transported to the Rock of Eternity, where the mighty wizard Shazam gives Billy his powers and tells him that the Seven Deadly Sins have escaped and Billy must become the Champion of Magic to save the world.
If you prefer seeing Billy Batson as a good soul that tries his best to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, this isn’t the Billy for you. This Billy Batson tricks police officers, steals from other kids, gets into fights, and is just an overall grump for most of the movie. The movie tries its best to make Billy sympathetic, fleshing out how he’s just trying to find his mom and that he’s disconnected from everyone else in pursuit of this one goal, but I could never root for Billy before he became a superhero. He just comes across as a punk.
So when Billy is able to transform himself into a superhero by turning into Zachary Levi, you would expect that he gains responsibility and matures into a decent person because of this. This character growth does eventually happen, but it’s not until the third act of the movie. Until that point, Billy as Shazam comes across as even more arrogant and self-centered than his mortal self. I understand that this is all in service of Billy’s character arc –insert “with great power comes great responsibility here” — but a majority of the movie makes Billy so unpleasant that I wanted to see him get defeated so that someone could eventually knock some sense into him. People will chastise him, but like a kid, Billy ignores them until its too late.
Thankfully, whenever the movie isn’t focused on Billy acting like a brat, it’s spending time fleshing out the excellent supporting cast. Billy’s foster family is incredibly charming and is where all of the humor and heart lie. Freddy is a barrel of energy, throwing out a Rolodex of superhero knowledge at Billy while also giving some of the best jokes and sight gags in the entire movie. Billy’s foster sisters, Mary and Darla (Grace Fulton and Faithe Herman respectively), also steal the show, mostly due to how well these two embody the themes of the movie.
Shazam!, at its core, is a movie about family. While other superhero movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, showcase how a band of misfits can come together to create a surrogate family, I would argue that Shazam! is the perfect embodiment of this concept. This is a rare movie that shows life in a foster family in a positive, supportive light. Billy’s foster parents want him to like it at their house and try to give Billy the chance to succeed. Darla wants to be the best sister possible for Billy, while Freddy slowly views Billy not only as a best friend but as a brother. All of that beautiful development is wasted on a main character who is self-centered until his foster siblings force themselves into his life and stand up for Billy. This eventually leads to an outstanding climax that had me beaming from how much fun I was having. It almost made me forget how annoyed I was at Billy before reaching that point.
Unquestionably, Shazam! is a very charming movie. It never comes close to the same grim and gritty aesthetics that plagued the early DCEU movies and injects a healthy amount of levity and goofiness to the proceedings. The trailers have not lied here; this is a funny film. I wouldn’t say it was laugh-out-loud funny, but I got a few solid chuckles from it, mostly due to the supporting cast and their great delivery, specifically from Grazer. That being said, Levi’s delivery mostly fell flat on its face, trying too hard to be hip with the kids, Flossing included. Levi’s jokes fell into the same routine of him acting like a coward, being able to do something he didn’t think he could do, then make a shocked face at the camera with a quick joke about how he never knew he could do that. Rinse and repeat for about 30 minutes.
If you’re a hardcore fan of Shazam, then you’re also going to appreciate the plethora of Easter eggs on display here. I won’t spoil any of them, but one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the first five minutes had me pay immediate attention to what was happening. You can tell that a lot of care and heart went into making Shazam! a breath of fresh air for the cynical shared universe, but the movie cripples itself by attaching it to a main character that I wanted to like, but never really could.
Which brings me back to the original source material. Is it the movie’s fault for trying to stay true to Geoff Johns’ original 2012 story, as flawed as it is? This reinvention of Billy was never one that fans truly accepted, but given the hand that Sandberg was dealt, especially since Johns was the head of DC Films during the majority of this movie’s production, he did a fine job with it. Sure, it’s not the ideal Billy/Shazam that most people would have wanted, but what the movie loses in wholesomeness it gains in heart.
Shazam! is a conflicting movie. Everything about it technically works and at times can be great, minus the occasionally poor CGI that reminds me of Doomsday from Batman v. Superman, but your enjoyment will come from whether or not you can put up with this interpretation of Billy Batson. He mellows out by the end of the movie, but that still leaves us with a character that isn’t very enjoyable for most of its runtime. I can at least appreciate the fact that people that aren’t familiar with the character will probably fall in love with him, especially foster kids and teenagers. There are good messages on display here, wrapped in an enjoyable package, so even if I didn’t enjoy this interpretation of Billy, that isn’t to say that you won’t fall in love with him. You’ll probably like the movie way more than I did, and I’m at least happy that Shazam! exists and makes the case for a new franchise that can only go up. If DC moves forward with The Rock playing Black Adam in the sequel, then we potentially have a new great franchise on our hands.