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Shazam! is 2019’s most fun superhero film

Shazam! plays off of the childlike wonder audiences have for superheroes.
Illustration: Alex Gomez · The Sentry

DC continues franchise course correction

The DC Extended Universe has always seemed to have some trouble since 2014’s Man of Steel, which found mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike. In 2016, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice also lost the battle against critical reviews, though managed to make a nice return at the box office. Then, things began to turn around with 2017’s Wonder Woman, which lightened the mood of the franchise and brought a star-making performance from Gal Gadot. 2018’s Aquaman performed many of the same feats as Wonder Woman, though to a less refined result.

DC has continued to chart a new course with Shazam!, a feel-good film that stands to be the most fun entry in the series to date.

Director David F. Sandberg guides DC’s launch into comedy but on his own terms. He channels his horror roots having directed the thrillers Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation and utilizes them to full effect in scenes with Mark Strong, who contains gargoyle-esque physical manifestations of the seven deadly sins within his right eye that saunter around Philadelphia.

Sandberg’s strange mix of PG-13 bloodless horror and parody-style superhero goofiness works. The bizarre tonal juggling act is especially evident during the final battle, which switches between creature horror, caped crusader action, and spoof movie in the span of a single beat. The mashup of such wildly different genres works toward Shazam!’s benefit, however. What other superhero film has an opening scene that seems straight out of one of The Twilight Zone’s scariest episodes followed by a kid stealing food from a fat cop?

Zachary Levi stars as the titular superhero, whom 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) can transform into anytime he says his name. Levi has a refined and handsome look that almost prevents the audience from ever seeing him as a serious superhero, which, of course, only adds to the comedy of the fact that he’s really only a teenager given powers by a wizard. 

Angel’s Batson is the weakest link of the film. Angel has such a clean-cut Disney look to him, and his rebellion against law enforcement, school administration, and foster care workers are so often tame and/or for a good cause that his transition into hijinks—like overcharging a soda machine to make it spit out all its Dr. Pepper—can occasionally be a little hard to swallow. Levi does pick up the slack of these moments though and turns his own man-child charm up to about 1,000 percent, adding an air of childhood wish fulfillment to the film.

This isn’t to say that Shazam! suffers incessantly from a bit too Disney-fied performance; on the contrary, Shazam! is such an a-typical superhero film that any viewer’s disbelief should be checked at the door. Afterall, the film does include a talking caterpillar in its post-credit scene.

In allowing individual directors to put their own spin on each film and no longer mandating its franchise installments act as sequel set-ups, Warner Bros and DC Comics have created not only an incredibly refreshing and fun outing but one that requires little-to-no prior knowledge about the series and only asks that audience members bring out their inner child to join in the adventure.

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