When I saw the first teaser/trailer for Shazam! some time ago, it certainly looked different- it was either going to be a blast or another Distinguished Calamity (see what I did there? I’ll go get my coat…), it was hard to tell which, but it was clear that this was no typical, formulaic superhero movie. Except of course it was, really.
But, I have to say, and much to my surprise, Shazam! is an absolute blast. Its great. It doesn’t really shake up superhero movies in anything like the same way as Deadpool pretended to (that film’s last third really just falling into standard genre tropes) but it’s genuinely great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it and its easily the best DC film I’ve yet seen. Indeed, it’s so much better than the lackluster and confused Captain Marvel.
Shaking off the darkness of the Dark Knight films or Man of Steel etc, this nonetheless finds what actually turns out to be a very surprising middle ground – sure, its as light as Spider Man: Homecoming or the Ant Man films, but somehow it also manages to have some genuine darkness in the mix. Its a story of two boys (Billy Baxter and Thaddeus Sivana), one of whom is an orphan, while the other might as well be as he is ridiculed and rejected by his father and elder brother. Both boys are summoned by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who has spent years searching for someone pure of heart to take his place and protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins. Thaddeus, tempted by the Deadly Sins, is deemed unworthy, and by the time Billy is tested years later, the Sins are on the loose (freed by a now-adult Thaddeus, played by Mark Strong) and Shazam, nearing death, is so weakened he has no choice but to pass on his powers and hope Billy will measure up. Billy is no boy pure of heart, living a rough life in and out of foster care whilst vainly searching for the mother who he lost (and actually deliberately deserted him, in another dark twist). Will Billy learn to control and use his powers for Good before Thaddeus, equally empowered by the monstrous Deadly Sins, hunts Billy down and claims the power of Shazam in order for the Sins to wreak havoc on the world?
Well you can guess how it goes, but the beauty of Shazam! is how it gets there. While young Billy is played very well by (Asher Angel) in a sympathetic and warm performance that grounds the character, his Shazam alter-ego, dressed in an oddly charming retro spandex suit complete with a very strange cape, is played brilliantly by Zachary Levi, who I thought was incredibly good in the tv series Chuck. Levi’s performance is like Tom Hanks in Big, here playing a kid in an adult superhero body and getting great comedy out of it, but genuine pathos too. In many ways he is a vulnerable innocent in just the same way as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in recent Marvel outings, and perhaps to a lesser extent Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman. Shazam spends most of his time with his foster home buddy Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who, thanks to a fascination with superheroes, acts as Shazam’s advisor. Its two outsider kids against the world, sort of, in a rather intimate and personal superhero film with considerable heart.
Sure its not perfect, but it’s really quite close. It doesn’t degenerate into a huge CGI spectacle, there is a sense of reality to it in spite of its daftness, and all the characters are well-written and defined. There is a warmth and sense of fun to the film which is really refreshing, especially for a DC film. It doesn’t take itself at all too seriously, and yet maintains some real tension and drama. Its a great balancing act.
Better still, in 4K UHD, the film looks and sounds phenomenal. Its surprisingly reference material, with absolutely perfect use of HDR giving a sense of detail and depth that can be astonishing at times. The film mostly takes place near Christmas, with lots of seasonal lights outside and inside of homes that really pop, and a finale that takes place at a Winter Carnival that is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous throughout. This is a great Christmas movie (I didn’t see that coming). The CGI is more restrained than recent superhero ‘epics’ and is really photo-realistic in 4K, really benefiting from the HDR and wider colour gamut.
So yeah, thats me quite shocked, to be honest. I really didn’t think I would enjoy this anywhere near as much as I did. It certainly augurs well for the future direction of DC movies- well, I hope so, anyway. There’s plenty of room, surely, for both light and dark approaches to these costumed capers. After the deplorable Justice League I had absolutely zero interest in watching any further DC films, but this one has me turned around. Maybe I’ll have to get to Aquaman afterall.