What makes a family? Is it blood? A birth certificate? Or is it who you choose to call your brothers, your sisters, and your parents that matters?
This is a question made all the more poignant for a kid in the foster care system like Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Separated from his mother as a toddler, Billy has made it his mission to find her. We meet him as a mildly delinquent teenager, tricking cops so as to get hold of the address of the next Ms Batson on his list; but after another failed attempt, he ends up in a group care home in Philadelphia, thrown amongst an endearing but overwhelming mix of brand new siblings (though he doesn’t see them that way, at first).
After one trippy subway ride and an encounter with a somewhat creepy, slightly dramatic wizard (Djimon Hounsou), Billy is given the powers of Shazam – and the ability to turn into the fully grown superhero version of himself (Zachary Levi) whenever he utters the name. Cue Mark Strong (as an archetype he’d surely hoped to move past by now) as Dr Sivana, a man whom the wizard deemed not worthy of the Shazam mantle 40 years earlier, and who has spent his life tracking him down so as to claim the powers as his own.
A much brighter, funnier and heartwarming affair than any instalment in DCEU so far, Shazam! has comedy at its core, and the use of superpowers adds a whole new element to the young-person-in-grown-up-body dynamic that we’ve seen so many times before. It might take a while to get there, but once Zachary Levi is introduced as the muscle-bound, lightning-shooting Shazam, the central relationship between him and sidekick/foster brother Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), really steps up a gear, as well as his connection with the rest of his new brothers and sisters.
This origin story may not be adding anything dramatically new to the superhero arc plot-wise, but its warmth and integrity are what set Shazam! apart from the canon of caped crusaders – there’s a chemistry between Billy, Freddy and the rest of their diverse and eclectic family that gets you invested in these characters and this story, and the script uses that to full effect in a third act that will have you smiling from ear to ear.
It’s the thoroughly charming performances from Glazer and Levi that really sell the interactions at the heart of the movie, with an honourable mention for Faithe Herman as the insanely adorable Darla. Angel feels a little overshadowed once his adult alter-ego kicks in, and the biggest disconnect character-wise is the difference in Billy’s personality between the two actors – it might be that his superpowers help him come a little more out of his shell, but it’s as though he becomes a different person entirely, rather than just the best version. Angel never quite delivers the wit and humour we see in the grown Shazam, but Levi doesn’t quite embody the sadness and vulnerability of the lonely boy who just wants to find his mother.
Mark Strong is, sadly, wasted here. Convincing as he is in the antagonist role, it’s supervillain 101 – so it’s a good job you don’t really care about him that much. And, as refreshing as it is to see an ensemble cast in the foster family that come in all different colours, shapes and abilities, the representation here could have been taken a few steps further: the hero is still, after all, a straight white guy; the only non-thin cast member gets the least to say and has his body altered later in the film; and, though Jack Dylan Grazer is one of the best bits of this movie, having an actor with a disability that mirrored Freddie’s playing him would have added an extra layer of authenticity.
Hyperspeed, super strength and electrical manipulation abilities are undoubtedly super cool, but Shazam! shows that for both those on screen and us watching it, they’re not what’s really important in this film. As Captain Sparklefingers himself puts it, what’s the point in having powers, if you have nobody to share them with? It turns out, a new found family are the perfect people to do just that.