Family is the magic word for Shazam! – movie review

Looking to build on the positive momentum from Aquaman last December, Warner Bros. and DC are back with their latest superhero film in their shared universe of movies in Shazam! 

The film opens up with a young Thaddeus Sivana who is brought to the Rock of Eternity by the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) in the hopes that he is worthy to succeed him and become his champion. When he fails his test he is cast out by the Wizard, setting him on a lifelong quest to return to the Rock of Eternity and claim the magical power.

Fast-forward to the present, where we meet 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who has commandeered a police database to search for his long-lost mother. After another failed search, authorities catch up to him and turn him over to Child Protective Services, where he is taken in by Victor and Rosa Vasquez.

As former foster children themselves, they have taken in other foster kids, knowing the importance of family. At their home Billy is introduced to his “siblings,” first Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), then Eugene Choi (Ian Chen) and Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), followed by Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand), before finally meeting his bunkmate, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).

When Billy begins school with them the next day, he sees Freddy being beaten by bullies. Although initially he walks away, he becomes incensed when he hears Freddy being mocked for not having a mother. After landing a few hits, Billy goes on the run from the two bullies and winds up on the subway, where he is magically transported to the Rock of Eternity.

There he meets the Wizard Shazam. With the Seven Deadly Sins released by an older Thaddeus (Mark Strong), the Wizard is forced to choose Billy as his champion and imbues him with his mystical powers, whenever he calls out his name. Billy is now able to transform into a fully realized self (portrayed by Zachary Levi) whenever he calls out Shazam! and is tasked with stopping Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins from unleashing further chaos into the world.

With the explosion of superhero films since the turn of the century there has been very little territory that hasn’t been covered in this genre by either Marvel or DC. However, Warner Bros. and DC have managed to find another avenue to tell a superhero story in the form of a family-centric film. Thanks to the unique premise of having a child transform into an adult to become a superhero, Shazam! is able to distinguish itself from its contemporaries and tackle its material in a manner that doesn’t hold it to the same kinds of conventions as other superhero films. Shazam! still follows similar rules and tropes of the origin story, but the way in which David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden address those tropes adds a bit of a meta quality to its story.

Gayden’s screenplay takes full advantage of Shazam! inhabiting the same world as Batman, Superman, and the rest of the Justice League by making enough references through the character of Freddy Freeman. In this way Freddy works as a proxy for the audience, as his references give a baseline of information that they can draw on as we journey with him and Billy in discovering the powers and abilities of Shazam. Given that Shazam doesn’t quite hold the same level of popularity and recognition from the casual audience member, this approach to learning about this new superhero makes for a refreshing take as we get it from the joyful perspective of two kids living out the fantasy that anyone would have if they were suddenly given superpowers.

And that joy is perfectly embodied in the casting of Zachary Levi as the mystical champion, despite it having been an eyebrow-raising choice when initially announced. His ability to capture the essence of Asher Angel’s 14-year-old boy and play it in adult form makes him one of the more lovable and charming superheroes on screen. There’s a playfulness and excitement to his performance that truly captures the sense any person would feel after being granted a number of superpowers. You can’t help but fall into the film’s charms during their version of the “training montage,” though in this case instead of training, it’s Billy and Freddy doing superpower testing for their YouTube channel.

Joy is just the perfect word to describe Shazam!. The film knows what it is and doesn’t try to play up the stakes higher than it needed to be. The smaller scale of the conflict is perfectly suitable and allows the film to play more into its supporting cast, which is one of the more charming ones in recent memory, and Levi’s chemistry with the rest of the cast is just a pleasure to watch. Billy’s foster siblings all have unique quirks and each is memorable in their own right. Additionally, because his siblings are foster siblings they allow for greater representation that superhero films in general have really struggled with and the surprise turn in the third act only furthers that point.

The siblings are all genuinely interesting characters that you want more of, which is one of my bigger disappointments of the film. The family dynamic that they have is something I wanted more of because a foster family of this sort isn’t something we get to see on a regular basis. They bring a heart to the film that is missing in most superhero movies. While Billy and Freddy get a majority of the spotlight, understandably so, the fact that the film doesn’t overlook these characters – for the most part – is a big plus.

Zachary Levi is a delight to watch in the role, especially with his chemistry with the rest of the cast. The film manages to pack a ton of surprises that weren’t spoiled by the marketing team, a rarity in these days, but the heart of the film is in its family and the movie plays up that aspect and sells it. There are some truly uplifting and heartwarming moments punctuated by the film’s ending. Shazam! is easily the most accessible superhero film for families and one of the more entertaining movies of the year thus far. ~ Paolo Maquiraya

If you have seen Shazam! and would like to rate/review it yourself, click here.

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