The Dark Knight was a real double-edged sword for Warner Bros. and DC in the long run. Sure it gave maturity and legitimacy to movies about guys in capes and makeup while validating the dedication millions of people around the world had to what were essentially cartoon characters. But the success and praise it earned for being dark, gritty and more realistic somehow forced future superheroes at the cinema to wear those colors for nearly a decade. It took Superman, the bright and shiny symbol of hope and heroics, and drowned him in gray colors and murky morals in Man of Steel. It made the first-ever live-action teaming of the most famous superheroes of all time look contrived and stupid. It even took a wacky adventure of a rogues gallery of renegades and hacked it to death in the editing room. When it came time for course correction to follow its competition, things got even more embarrassing. It would take something monolithic to undo the damage done by The Dark Knight, like say……a 14-year-old in a 38-year-old man’s body doing the floss.
This may border on hyperbole, but Shazam! is the easily best thing WB and DC have produced since The Dark Knight for being the exact opposite of Batman and the Joker’s epic faceoff. To quote Mike Stoklasa (without the sarcasm), Shazam! is a film about family and the lack thereof afforded to young Billy Batson (Asher Angel). He skips out on countless foster families until his latest one features Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with a crutch but bounces around with endless knowledge of DC’s superheroes. On a random day evading bullies, Billy is summoned by an ancient wizard to serve as “champion” of the universe. He says the wizard’s name and becomes Shazam (Zachary Levi), a beefed-up superhero with electricity powers and a stalled ability to fly. While he and Freddy try to figure out what it truly means to be a superhero (and try beer for the first time, obviously), Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) also gains a mysterious power and wants Shazam’s as well to help him strike fear in the hearts of others.
The best thing Shazam! has in its corner is a cast and crew who not only know what kind of movie they’re in, but are actually happy to be there. The orchestrator of it all is director David F. Sandberg, who stretched his legs with horror movies (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) and here gets to put his creativity out in full force. Sandberg throws in occasionally touches of his horror experience with menacing monsters and surprisingly-graphic violence for a PG-13 superhero movie (one scene in a boardroom deserves an R-rating alone), but shows some solid talent directing comedy too. He takes his experience timing jump scares and uses that to land successful physical comedy bits throughout the movie. Atop of the physical bits are some genuinely funny lines from the script by Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo), which emphasizes themes of family, outcasts, finding one’s self and the simple virtue of being a hero. If its violence and humor are adult, Shazam!’s message is on the level of an afterschool special. But the movie is self-aware enough to know not to be ashamed of it and see it merely as a base to throw in wacky shenanigans like wizards, magic and scary monsters. In fact, the whole movie feels like if the story of Superman was told from the perspective of a teenager and that’s the most charming thing about it. Even the fight scenes are essentially parodies of the mass destruction in Man of Steel.
Adding to the Superman comparison is Zachary Levi himself as Shazam. With his firm physique, coiffed hair and wide-eyed attitude, Levi looks like he’s cosplaying as George Reeves’s portrayal of Superman from the 1950s. But when Levi’s dorky, prepubescent personality come through Shazam as it did on his NBC comedy Chuck, it makes the character complete. Levi plays Shazam exactly the way the plot dictates: a kid who gets superpowers and doesn’t what the hell to do with them. He stop muggers and robbers as long as he can get a cute girl’s phone number or paid in the process. He’s sitcom Superman and it’s a breath of fresh air for the DC Extended Universe, fully embracing the corniness of caped crusaders without overstaying his welcome. He and Asher Angel are good parallels, though Angel handles more of the tender scenes of the movie admirably. Angel is equal parts smartass and sensitive soul, assisted by Jack Dylan Grazer’s fine work as a foul-mouthed comedic sidekick. The movie thrives frequently with its supporting characters, ranging from Billy’s doting foster father (Cooper Andrews) to his good-hearted foster sister (Faithe Herman). Even Mark Strong, stuck with a routine villain role, makes an imposing figure and has fleeting moments of comedy.
Despite being an obvious superhero story, Shazam! Is more of an outright comedy than anything else. It’s a miracle how it mostly avoids being lowbrow and stupid, wearing its heart on its sleeve and trying to entertain kids as well as adults (or man-children, specifically). Regardless of what brought this movie and its tone to life (most likely desperation and indifference on the part of its producers), Shazam! is a reminder of why superhero movies were made in the first place. It’s not reinventing the wheel but goes back to the drawing board to find the essence of comic book movies. Charm and a good heart go a lot farther than Granny’s Peach Tea and an explosion.