Review: SHAZAM!'s Infectious Joy Near Impossible to Resist

Credit: New Line Cinema
Credit: New Line Cinema

We have a longstanding theory here at Newsarama that one of the surest ways you can guarantee audiences are going to have fun at your superhero film is let your superhero have a lot of fun being a superhero.

Robert Downey Jr. set the MCU tone for 11 years and 22 films in the first five minutes of 2008’s Iron Man, riffing with the soldiers in the jeep.

Joss Whedon crafted what still might be the genre’s signature sequence - the tour de force last act of 2012’s Avengers - by finally letting the Hulk out of his self-imposed cage and letting him ‘smash’ (and riff) with full impunity.

And while technically not the ‘hero,’ has anyone ever had any more fun in a superhero movie than Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight?

In a period in which superhero films are aiming for market firsts and social milestones Warner Bros./New Line Cinema’s Shazam! is not only the first Marvel or DC adaptation to lean into kids as the main protagonists, but completely gives itself over to the pure joy of superheroics, and predictably, it’s hard not to be caught up in the infectious energy of it all.

Warner Bros. may have its DC groove and their path forward in being anti-Zack Snyder.

How do you like that?

Credit: New Line Cinema

How Warner Bros. does move ahead - eschewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe close-knit model for more individual films - is a subject for another day, particularly with Todd Phillips' The Joker first teaser trailer dropping Wednesday and looking absolutely nothing like Shazam!.

But make no mistake, DC’s own ‘Captain Marvel’ is unique to the market - nearly-almost a full-on comedy but respecting the character and genre just enough to stay on the right side of action-adventure.

The way it achieves that balance isn’t perfect. At times director David F. Sandberg teeters between wanting Shazam! to be an 1980s Amblin-style kids-alone adventure (where it is at its best) and wanting to credibly exist in the established DC Universe (where it is sometimes awkward).

Credit: New Line Cinema

Shazam!’s six wizards/six gods/seven deadly sins/Rock of Eternity mythology is a bit dense and will likely be lost to some degree on moviegoers who aren’t familiar going in. And Mark Strong’s Thaddeus Sivana can frankly be a bit shockingly brutal for what is being marketed (if not directly) as an all-ages film. Parents may want to hold younger moviegoers hands during the boardroom scene.

Credit: New Line Cinema

You’ve been warned.

Shazam!, however ultimately wins out on pure sentimentality and the charm and enthusiasm of its leads.

It’s Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman is maybe the film’s secret weapon. Snarky,  whipsmart and dare we say Stark-like but at the same time human and vulnerable, he’s the heart and glue of the film that binds Asher Angel’s Billy Batson and Zachary Levi’s Shazam. And that isn’t as easy a task as you may think, because if there’s something to nitpick in Shazam! is that the film does show symptoms of cinematic body switch syndrome.

That’s when the performance of the adult playing the kid doesn’t quite line-up with the performance of the kid playing the kid.

Credit: New Line Cinema

Angel exhibits some star-making qualities as Billy, but in playing a perpetually disappointed, guarded, orphaned foster child in search of his real mother, his performance is mostly lowkey. Angel as Batson is compelling and appealing, but hardly affable and demonstrative.

Levi, however, fully commits to the comedic side of the equation in a way audiences haven’t seen since maybe the older, good Will Ferrell comedies.

As Shazam, Levi goes no holds barred golly-gee-whiz without abandon, doing a 38-year-old version of how a 14-year-old would act, and then sometimes a 38-year-old acting like how a 14-year-old would act pretending to be a 38-year-old...

...turned up to 11.

Credit: New Line Cinema

And while it’s nearly impossible to resist he’s having such a good time at it, it doesn’t quite feel like Batson and also not quite the comic book character that’s maybe a little earnest and unjaded but also carries with him the wisdom of Solomon in his bag of powers.

But Levi’s mainlining of pure zeal makes those small shortcomings easily forgivable.

At its best moments Shazam! knows exactly what it is, directly paying homage with a wink, a nod, and some musical notes to Tom Hanks’ Big. It’s unabashedly wide-eyed, happy and sentimental, which in the sub-genre of shared superhero universe’s feels brand new. And that’s more than good enough to take its place among DC’s best.

Shazam! opens April 5. 

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