If you asked me what a modern DC movie was like three years ago, I would immediately think of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and internally cringe. “They’re incomprehensible, ugly-looking dredge that take themselves too seriously,” I would respond. “They feel like things a fourteen-year-old who thinks they have the world all figured out would write and direct, and who has forgotten that superheroes are, essentially, childhood fantasies.” Essentially, they’re movies that try to capture the serious thematic weight of The Dark Knight without the writing or directing chops to pull it off.
Now, three years later, that’s all changed. Wonder Woman proved that DC films don’t have to suck. Aquaman proved that DC films can be based on a lesser-known property and still be massively successful. Now, Shazam proves that DC movies can successfully be hilarious parodies of superhero films, all while containing a thematic throughline that actively argues against the existence of something like Batman vs. Superman. It certainly caught me off guard when I watched it, but the film was all the better for it, and I highly recommend you check it out when it gets its wide release.
To begin, Shazam is very, very funny. Satire and parodies of superhero media are almost as rampant as serious superhero media (take, for instance, Deadpool and Teen Titans GO!); but Shazam adds an interesting twist by asking a simple question: what if an actual, realistic teenager in this day and age obtained superpowers beyond their wildest imagination? The answer, unsurprisingly, is comedic gold, in the form of witty dialogue, slapstick humor, and subverting expectations. After Billy, the main protagonist, played by child star Asher Angel, obtains his powers, he runs around in an adult body doing things that aren’t exactly heroic, but are a teenager’s idea of what an adult life is like. He becomes a YouTube star (thanks to his friend and foster brother Freddy), goes to a convenience store and buys alcohol (only to realize beer tastes awful), becomes a patron to a Gentlemen's club (though he doesn’t stay for long), and tests his powers in extravagant ways. What really sells the comedy is the enthusiasm and on-screen chemistry shared by co-stars Zachary Levi (who plays Billy in adult form) and Jack Dylan Grazer (Freddy). The film even points out that the two argue like an “old married couple” at one point, and honestly, I couldn’t come up with a better way to describe it. Levi and Grazer’s performances thoroughly sell the characters’ deep and developing friendship, and helps reinforce Billy’s character arc, in which he learns to rely on other people. Watching the two interact is definitely the best part of the movie.
On the more negative side, the film’s greatest issue is its tonal balance. While it is clear that Shazam primarily relies on levity, satire, and humor, there are some scenes that feel extremely out-of-place. In fact, there’s one instance where it feels suspiciously like a horror movie as an entire room of people is slaughtered by monsters (though, considering the film was directed by David F. Sandberg, the guy who helmed Lights Out and Annabelle Creation, it’s a rather well-crafted horror scene). There’s no blood, but it gets fairly horrific and it came completely out of left field. This is unfortunately not the only scene that carries this problem, as I found that the instances in which Shazam takes itself too seriously are typically its weak areas. The only exception to this is when the film focuses on Billy’s backstory, particularly his relationship with and lingering attachment to his estranged mother. Shazam actually goes to some fairly dark and depressing places in that respect and it works because it reinforces Billy’s characterization. Billy is shown to be a kid who refuses to rely on others, but obsentiably grows out of that immature mindset and learns that there is power in learning how to cooperate and empathize with his new foster family.
This brings us to the main thematic throughline of Shazam, which frankly was not something I was expecting to discuss. While superhero movies generally do have messages, I did not go into this film thinking I would have to now analyze a fairly nuanced idea of what real maturity actually is. Yet, here we are. Indeed, unlike other DC movies, Shazam actively embraces the immature, fantastical childhood wish fulfillment that’s part of all superhero fiction. However, it is ultimately a thematic counterpoint to previous DC films, as it rejects the more edgy, isolationist idea of adulthood displayed by those other films and characters (most notably Batman). It acknowledges that kids are immature and will do stupid things if given power, but is actively okay with those sorts of actions because...well, it’s fun and kids will be kids. That said, the film does draw a line: immaturity is okay so long as it doesn’t interfere with our ability to develop empathy for others.
This is actually where the film’s villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (played wonderfully by Mark Strong) takes the center stage. He encapsulates the film’s idea of what “wrong” immaturity looks like. He became a villain because of stupid grudges he held against the wizard Shazam (for not giving him the wizard’s power), and his father and brother for using him as a mild punching bag. This led to him never relying on or caring about people other than himself, and the film goes to great lengths to make fun of how seriously he takes everything. Even so, despite all his villain monologuing and threatening presence, he gets defeated by another rather disenfranchised child who took the opposite path, one who managed to get over his own self-seriousness and isolationist tendencies despite his harsher backstory (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the good guy wins). Thus, even though Billy and his friends are still immature children in some respects, they’re all more mature than the actual adult who never got over his selfish desires for power and domination.
I can see someone calling all of this cheesy and childish, and honestly, I wouldn’t blame them for it. The film is basically about the power of friendship, which is the most cliché thematic argument any piece of media could ever bring forward. Still, Shazam delivers it well, and I think it communicates this idea to teenagers with more of a modern, satirical twist. Unfortunately, I can’t say exactly why without spoiling the climax of the film, but let’s just say that because Billy learns to rely on his diverse foster family, the film also seems to be talking about the power of uniting with those who are superficially different than you, rather than simply stating that friendship is good. Given how divided the US’s current political climate seems to be, this is an extremely important message to hear today. Shazam may not be a perfect viewing experience, but its heart is definitely in the right place. It’s fun, it advises both adults and kids not to take everything so seriously all the time, and reminds us why the power of friendship is something worth remembering in the first place.