About a third of the way through Shazam, you begin to wonder if there’s been a mistake.
It won’t ruin the experience of the latest DC superhero adventure, but it may nag at you a bit. The moment comes when Zachary Levi first takes up the role of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 15-year old foster child who is granted magical powers by a dying wizard and transforms into a thirty-something version of himself with super-speed, strength and the ability to shock people (or charge phones). Before uttering the word that turns him into a demi-god, Billy is pretty awful, albeit understandably so. He has spent much of his adolescence bouncing from home to home, rejecting the kindness of his foster families in order to find his mother who he lost years ago at a carnival. After another failed attempt to find his mother, Billy is placed with another foster family, anchored by Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled teenager with sarcasm, compassion, and optimism to spare. Despite the family’s overtures, Billy generally rebuffs them. The only inkling that he is somewhat worthy of the powers he’s about to receive is when he fights off two bullies who ram their SUV into Freddy, even though he ultimately runs and leaves Freddy on the ground to his own devices. The next time the two boys would see each other, Billy is a full-grown adult with all of the energy, charisma and wit that he previously lacked, all of which Freddy has in spades.
Together, grown Billy and Freddy galavant across Philadelphia, exploring the joys of superheroism while leaving a delightful, hilarious wreck of chaos in their wake. In these moments, where tests of Billy’s powers and grasps at fighting fairly low-stakes crime are peppered in between the two kids messing around and growing closer, Shazam is an unqualified success, the most fun that a DC Comics film has ever wrought. The laughs are frequent and frequently earned, from brilliant send-ups of the superhero genre to killer sight gags; the film finds unexpectedly great humor in Billy’s lightning-charged transformation into Shazam. Director David A. Sandberg tosses the Synderverse’s muted color palette and self-indulgent camera work in the trash, enriching his scenes in vibrant, energizing color and framing. Amidst the youthful anarchy and reckless abandon is a heartfelt message about the power of the family you create for yourself, grounded in Billy’s foster family. Shazam doesn’t engage in the serious issues and abuses within the foster system, making its central theme rather simplistic (with the script relying on platitudes it otherwise would skewer), but centering the emotional beats on Billy’s foster siblings – from the utterly precocious Darla to the ambitious but kind eldest Mary – helps those emotional beats land with genuine sincerity to salve the satire.
But then there is Freddy, and the wasted opportunity he represents for Shazam: to make him the superhero and Billy the sidekick. Freddy is such a compelling, likable character, and Jack Dylan Grazer is so well-matched with Zachary Levi, that he easily overshadows his foster brother, who is a callous, cowardly jerk in comparison. Levi often plays adult Billy like the logical psychological extension of Freddy, and when he leans into Asher Angel’s more dour portrayal, adult Billy veers dangerously close to the type of superhero DC films have unfortunately excelled in (sans Wonder Woman). When Young Billy eventually does come around to appreciate Freddy and his new family, it’s a moment that feels unearned. Freddy is meant to serve as Billy’s conscience, but you can’t help but wonder how much higher Shazam could’ve soared with Freddy at the helm instead in the passenger’s seat (it also would’ve been a landmark moment for disabled representation in superhero films).
The non-diegetic tension between teen Billy and Freddy casts the same kind of tonal shadow as Shazam’s central villain Thaddeus Silva does whenever he’s on screen. A rejected Shazam contender himself, Silva spends much of the film in his own miserable bubble, commanding a team of nondescript CGI monsters representing the seven deadly sins (Fullmetal Alchemist did it better) and causing needlessly brutal violence because of nondescript reasons. His only real purpose is to bring out Billy’s worst traits for way too long and give him and his siblings a big bad to beat. To Shazam’s credit, their big battle is a lot more fun than the standard final act fight, as it course corrects by giving Freddy and his siblings much-deserved hero moments of their own. Still, considering he’s given an origin story before Billy, Thaddeus Silva being just another one-note supervillain is quite the disappointment.
Those issues aside, Shazam feels like a triumphant moment for DC. Even though there isn’t a false note amongst the cast, the dynamite pairing of Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer deserve much of the credit. Levi is the best casting decision the DCEU has made since Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Like his Amazonian counterpart, Levi imbues adult Billy with wide-eyed excitement and youthful vigor that is a joy to watch in nearly every frame. He is clearly living his best life, and one can only hope this isn’t the last time he gets to don the white cape and gold boots. Grazer is a scene-stealing revelation as Freddy, sharing wonderful chemistry with Levi and matching his enthusiasm and humor beat for awesome beat. Asher Angel doesn’t quite match their electric energy, but he does well with his character’s darker, more grounded moments.
For the first time in six years and seven films, Shazam marks the first time that DC has unchained itself from its own self-seriousness and found the unbridled joy of its source material. Zachary Levi is such an enjoyable superhero that he makes it easy to forgive some of the film’s tonal and thematic weaknesses. Like its hero and star, Shazam is an electrifying bundle of laughs that should shine brightly amidst this stacked year of blockbusters. With the Avengers and the X-Men offering galactic cataclysms this year, Shazam’s raucous respite from the cacophony is much appreciated.