It’s hard to be certain where Warner Bros’s DC Extended Universe – having produced more films rated rotten than fresh on Rotten Tomatoes thus far – is currently headed. For one thing, Warner Bros is apparently producing DC-based films that won’t be considered part of that universe, like the upcoming Joker solo film. While Shazam is technically part of the DCEU, it fits in with everything else in what I think is a good way: not too close, and not too far. It acknowledges the existence of Batman and Superman on multiple occasions, but doesn’t really tie in to specific events of the previous films. It’s free to be its own entity. And while it’s not perfect, it’s a reasonably entertaining experience.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a troubled teenage boy, recently placed in the latest of a long series of foster homes, and making no effort to fit in with anyone around him. Then one day, he is abruptly transported to another realm where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) names him his champion; now, by saying the word ‘Shazam’, Billy transforms into an adult (Zachary Levi) with a variety of extraordinary powers, from super-strength to lightning bolts. While the immature Billy is not exactly the ideal choice to be champion, the wizard’s hand has been forced; Dr Sivana (Mark Strong), who was tested and rejected by the wizard as a child, has now acquired the power of seven demons called the Seven Deadly Sins, and threatens to wreak havoc on the world unless Billy can stop him.
The main problem I had with this film at the start is that in the first half, it feels like two different films squashed together. When Shazam kicks off, it’s pretty depressing: we have a prologue detailing Dr Sivana’s childhood and motivations, which features his father angrily calling him a “miserable, whining little s**t”; Billy being presented as an unhappy, self-centered child, lost by a mother who never came looking for him; and a foster family who aren’t very engaging at first. Then he is transformed into Shazam, and the previously humourless film suddenly becomes a goofy comedy in which he uses his new adult body to buy beer, and tests his powers in a montage set to Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. It’s uncomfortably jarring, especially when all the wackiness is interrupted by a scene from the previous film we were watching, where Sivana walks into a boardroom and violently slaughters everyone inside. (One unfortunate man gets his head non-graphically bitten off in a moment reminscent of Venom.)
By the time we get to the second half, however, more time has been spent on the lighter side of things, which helps to make up for what came before. The comedy is truly funny, helped a lot by Zachary Levi clearly enjoying himself as he plays a teenage boy in a grown man’s body, and a grown man with superpowers at that. I also became a lot more invested in Billy’s character growth, and his relationships with his foster siblings, as time went on. When Billy starts out as Shazam, he shows off and exploits his powers for his own gain, as you would expect from an egocentric teenager; it takes not only the appearance of a supervillain to make him learn the error of his ways, but some life lessons courtesy of his new family, who also become more likeable as the film goes on and they are developed more. While Mark Strong’s Dr Sivana starts out with an interesting motivation, I ultimately cared less about him and his generic demon allies than the character development between the good guys.
Overall, while Shazam suffers from not establishing its primary tone at the start, it features a lot more good than bad, and is a great deal of fun at its high points. Rating: 3.5/5.