Starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou. Directed by David F. Sandberg.
David F. Sandberg has had a pretty hectic few years. Before 2016, he was just a Swedish dude going by ponysmasher on youtube making some fun horror shorts, and then Lights Out happened. Less than five minutes in length, the youtube horror film, starring his wife Lotte Losten, was lauded as a terror enduring thrill ride. Hollywood, under the guise of one James Wan, came calling. Lights Out became a fully fledged horror movie, and a damn good one, and shortly afterwards Sandberg followed up with Annabelle: Creation, a fine addition to the Conjuring horror series.
Now, following on from his pal / Obi-Wan style mentor James Wan, Sandberg joins the DC extended universe. Literally following on from the madness of Wan’s Aquaman, Sandberg’s Shazam! is a fun for the whole family superhero romp that delivers on both laughs and charm.
Foster kid Billy Batson finds himself in a new foster home, filled with some random types, and befriends his new roomie Freddie Freeman. When he stops a bullying attack on Freddie, the ancient wizard Shazam bestows on him great power so that he might stop the villainous Thaddeus Sivana and the seven deadly sins, by shouting the word Shazam!
Sandberg opens the film with a fun prologue that sets up the fun magical conceit (with a fun cameo by a DC veteran), as well as elements of horror. Shazam! is, for some reason, set at Christmas, which makes it’s April release a little off-putting. Even so, and refraining from addressing the controversy of this being the original comic book Captain Marvel, Sandberg manages to bring the fun of a horror film but substituting screams for laughs.
It’s a timing thing, and Sandberg gets it, along with his ability to frame a scene he knows when to allow the comedy to take a back seat to the emotion. Unlike Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok which seemed at times to want to run headlong from emotion in favour of more off the wall comedy, Shazam! offers an emotional heart to its superhero movie that none since Wonder Woman have managed. Asher Angel might be the film’s MVP as Billy Batson a 14-year-old on the hunt for his birth parents and desperate not to be stuck in the foster system.
It’s rather uplifting that the film has a relaxed attitude towards race, disability and family units. The foster family Batson joins is racially diverse, and welcoming, a loving environment that can embrace him for who he is, while also being the rock the film can hang the heavier moments.
In the role of Shazam! himself, the human embodiment of the wizard’s power is Zachary Levi, who plays the overgrown mantled a little like Chuck meets Flynn Rider. It’s good casting – he has leading man good looks, has clearly buffed himself up, but can also deliver on the laughs. His deadpanning of lines like “you’re dead” to some would be robbers is trailer-worthy and funny, and his flair for physical comedy comes in handy when power testing montages come into play.
There might not be anything massively original in the film – the core belief that family is what you make it, that being a hero sometimes means needing help, and that love does conquer all things are stuff from other movies, as well as the film clearly wanting to have lower collateral damage than previous DC films (the most damage is a bus falling and a ferris wheel collapsing with zero casualties. There aren’t any action sequences that prove original or innovative, and while Sandberg gets to flex his horror muscles with the Seven Deadly sins, it always feels like he’s holding back, never fully going for the horror joy Wan had when he took us to the kingdom of the Trench.
Even so, it’s clear this is a superhero vamp on Big (with one clear reference in there) and Stranger Things, it offers big belly laughs, and enough heart and bright colours to never grate on you, and even with its most tenuous of connections to the wider DC extended universe movies in there (they’re minor and will be debated for months to come), this offers a glimpse into the variety that the universe can have when it doesn’t insist on being all dark and moody.
Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.