SHAZAM! Earns The Exclamation Point

Being a hero is a choice, one that’s never too late to make and that never has to be made alone. That trinity of concepts is the beautiful and emotional throughline that holds together the light, breezy and fun Shazam!, taking this superheroic riff on Big and elevating it to a place that resonates on the same emotional and thematic frequency as Donner’s Superman, a movie as focused on the small humanity of heroism as the big superhumanity of it.

Based on one of the least cool DC characters, a character who was ingested into that universe in a business deal but who has never quite found his place in the pantheon (not for lack of trying or lack of quality comics), Shazam!opts to embrace everything that makes its source material so out of step. It’s a family movie, a funny movie, a loving movie, a hopeful movie, a movie whose hero earnestly says “Holy moly” a couple of times. Most of all it’s a kid’s movie, just as Shazam (or Captain Marvel as he seemingly cannot be legally called in this film) is a kid’s hero. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive or condescending way, but rather that the character represents the positive peak of the wish-fulfillment possibilities of the superhero genre.

Billy Batson is a street kid who is looking for his birth mother. Billy has been escaping from foster homes all over the state, always using his smarts and wiles to get back on the hunt for his mom, from who he was separated one fateful day at a carnival. But he’s still 14, so he’s never quite one step ahead of the law, and when he gets picked up one last time he gets sent to a group home. And it’s a great one! This isn’t a Dickensian workhouse but rather a place of warmth and love, and Billy is surrounded by a motley crew of other kids, all of whom are good and decent and weird in their own ways.

But Billy is a loner, and so he keeps on trying to get away from this happy home… until he ends up in the weird magical lair of the wizard Shazam. Shazam has been searching for someone who is pure of heart for decades, but now an attack leaves him dying and he has no choice but to pass his power on to Billy Batson. Transformed into ‘the perfect man,’ Billy discovers he’s now a superhero, and that by uttering the wizard’s name he can swap between the kid and the man in the tight red suit.

The first things that Billy does with his new body are distinctly non-heroic. He buys beer. He uses his control of lightning to steal money from an ATM. He starts busking and charging people to take selfies with him. Peter Parker would be proud of this willful abuse of power for petty personal gain. But when another superbeing, imbued with the powers of Shazam’s ultimate nemeses, the Seven Deadly Sins, shows up, Billy has to figure out that with great power comes great responsibility.

The DCEU has, so far, been a Randian exercise in self-made heroism. Wonder Woman pulled away from that, giving Diana a squad to fight alongside, but generally the latest series of DC movies have been about loners who begrudgingly came together for a truly terrible team-up movie. Shazam! is the exact opposite – it’s a movie that actively preaches against the idea of going it alone, that is all about the joys of inclusive and communal living, and that has our hero come to a great realization: Power is best when it is shared.

At the start of Shazam! Billy Batson is a Snyder-esque character (there’s even a moment when he uses his powers to destroy the SUV owned by a couple of bullies that feels like a reference to Man of Steel – with the difference being that truck-destroying scene happened in a Superman movie and this one happens in a film ABOUT A 14 YEAR OLD), but the film rebukes his attitude. It turns its back on the idea that gritty is cool and it embraces love. It opens his eyes to the fact that he can’t do anything alone, and that relying on people – and allowing them to rely on you – is the greatest heroism of all. What’s more, he learns to share in a profoundly meaningful way.

This emotional throughline makes the whole film feel truly revolutionary at this moment in time. In a world where self help and spirituality have become new ways for people to think of themselves first, Shazam! blows up the idea that being self-centered is good. The movie actually tackles this head-on; there’s a scene where Billy, as Shazam, is giving bad advice to someone. “Look out for number one,” he says. “Always take care of yourself. Gandhi said that.” * It’s a joke that reminds me of the way spiritual quotes and concepts get mangled on social media to be turned into permission to be selfish and ignore the pain of others. It’s the “treat yo’self” brand of spirituality, and it’s Billy’s philosophy, especially once he discovers he can drink all the Dr. Pepper he wants in a sitting.

Yeah, other DC movies have been conceptually about loners coming to discover their belonging, but none of them quite exactly hit the right notes, or feel entirely honest about it. After all, Aquaman learns to accept a group identification… by becoming a king. Billy’s journey is far more humbling, and it’s about decentering himself and sharing his abilities with others (this, by the way, is a pretty good superheroic metaphor for how white men can be good allies to marginalized people, as Billy’s ersatz foster family is made up entirely of characters we would clumsily call ‘diverse’). Other superhero movies have talked the talk, but Shazam! truly walks it.

A lot of that is thanks to Zachary Levi. He brings exactly the correct childlike aspect to Shazam – one that’s not too gee-whiz, but still has plenty of gee-whiz to it. If Levi isn’t exactly playing the same character as Asher Angel, who is Billy Batson, it’s not really a problem – getting the grown up body lets Billy loosen up a little bit. It’s like what happens when Peter Parker pulls on his Spider-Man mask – there’s a shift in his personality. Angel’s performance changes after the first transformation (although to be fair he’s barely in it after that point), and I think equilibrium eventually happens.

Levi is a blast. He’s silly and he’s snotty in equal measure; he’s the perfect superhero for the Tik Tok era, all wide smiles at the vastness of his power. But Levi is more than that – he gets at the insecurity inside Billy, the insecurity that makes him a snotty street kid. He understands that it’s the insecurity and the fear and the feeling of not being enough that drives Billy to misuse his powers, to become a bully and a selfish jerk.

He’s absolutely delightful in his scenes against Jack Dylan Grazer (of It fame) as Freddie Freeman, Billy’s disabled foster brother. The two actors have absolute and endless chemistry (maybe more than Grazer and Angel have!) and their connection seems effortless and fun. It’s the kind of friendship that you wish you had as a kid and that as an adult you convince yourself you once had. Grazer has the absolute charm of a dorky 80s movie kid, and he gets to also have some of the darkness of those characters.

That actually extends to all of the actors and characters in the movie; the script by Henry Gayden really gives the ensemble a chance to shine as complete people. There’s a lot of time spent with the foster family, and each member is not only beautifully sketched in a few moments, they’re given more than one trait, and their multiple traits are not always aligned. Take Cooper Andrews as Victor Vasquez, Billy’s foster father. He’s funny and generous and kind and understanding… but he also gets really fucking mad at Billy when he runs away, and the movie doesn’t downplay that. The script gives even these smaller, side characters some dynamic range, and it makes them feel real, even as they’re running around in a largely comedic superhero movie.

And make no mistake, it is very comedic. Shazam! walks right up to the line of superhero parody more than once, especially with Freddie’s encyclopedic knowledge of superheroes and their adventures and the way this allows him to do meta-commentary on what’s happening. Yet director David F. Sandberg deftly handles his tone, never allowing the jokes to overpower the core emotional beats of the story. It’s a tricky balancing act, and he has to include superhero action on top of all that, but he pulls it off beautifully.

You can see Sandberg’s horror roots in Shazam!. The villainous Seven Deadly Sins are actually pretty scary, and there’s a prologue that gives us villain Sivana’s origin that is pretty dark. Sandberg understands that these heavier, more frightening moments are needed to give buoyancy to the fluffier scenes; without them the whole film becomes weightless. It’s the lesson too-few Amblin obsessed directors actually learned from 80s adventure movies – how to use the salty to highlight the sweet.

Mark Strong’s Sivana is a good villain, if a little stiff. You have to feel bad for Strong, endlessly playing baddies in movies like this, but his presence is undeniable. Opening Shazam! with Sivana as a kid, and seeing the emotional abuse (including emotional abuse from the fucking wizard Shazam!) that molded him into villainy was an incredibly strong choice. There’s a lot of compassion for Sivana, because in many ways he and Billy are similar. There’s no “You and I… we’re not so different” speech in the movie, but we don’t need one; it’s clear that both Sivana and Billy Batson are the results of traumatic abandonment, in one case emotional and in the other case literal. The difference isn’t that Billy is better than Sivana, it’s that Billy is lucky enough to find himself in a loving environment.

That difference leads the two to different relationships with their powers. Sivana wants to hoard it – he’s looking to collect Shazam’s power – but he has no goal beyond that. Sure, he’s getting played by the Seven Deadly Sins, but even still he has no big endgame. He just wants the power, and he wants all of it. He wants to show his dad and his brother that he IS important, that he DOES matter. Billy has some of that in him – he bristles at Freddy’s involvement in his career more than once – but in the end he learns the lesson that keeping all the power to himself is lonely and pointless.

The superhero action in Shazam! is fine; there’s a bus rescue sequence that I quite liked (and which is very Spider-Man-ish. This is a very Spider-Man-ish movie to me), and the final battle between Sivana and Shazam has its moments. But Shazam! is more like the early Marvel movies, in that it’s full of character and emotion, and lighter on the action. Frankly I like my superhero movies this way; give me more funny and lovely sequences of human beings being together, especially in weird costumes, and I am over the moon.

Shazam! got its hooks into me early and never let go. I won’t lie – I found myself getting emotional more than once. There’s a moment near the end – a big moment I won’t spoil – that actually made me burst into tears because of the joyous way it brings the childhood wish fulfillment of superheroes to the screen. It’s so easy to forget that these are children’s characters at the end of the day; perhaps we can tell more nuanced and adult stories with them, but there’s always room for versions of these characters who tell the littlest kids that they will be big, to tell the weakest kids that they will be strong, to tell the saddest kids that they will smile. It’s crazy that this movie came out a few months after Into The Spider-verse, because it’s crazy that it took over a decade of the new superhero boom to get us to superhero movies that fulfill the basic premise of Golden Age superhero comics: giving kids the space to dream.

* I’m paraphrasing