“Shazam!” is a simple movie, and in many ways, that’s where its merit lies. The story of a young boy who is given the power to turn into an adult with superhuman powers by an interdimensional wizard is, by default, hard to take seriously. The trick is making sure the corniness of the comic book source material comes off as slightly more endearing than ridiculous, and director David F. Sandberg mostly succeeds on this front.
Sandberg’s experience is in popcorn horror cinema. This doesn’t seem like it would translate to a family-friendly action comedy, but his former stylistic interests are still present. There is always a sense of tension when the film’s villain is on screen, and real stakes are established early in the story (not always a staple of the superhero genre).
The film’s visuals (shot by Maxime Alexandre, also of horror experience) capture the colorful dynamism of superhero cinema well but at times they employ darkness and control over shadow, which aren’t often utilized in the genre. Many set pieces feature creatures and situations that would feel right at home in Sandberg’s other films.
The film has the heart to match the horror though, and much of this comes from Zachary Levi’s lead performance. Much of the film’s physical comedy relies on the concept that this man isn’t familiar with how his body functions. A boy transforming into a musclebound hero could serve as a metaphor for the actor’s shift from taking comedic supporting roles to (usually) more serious leading ones. Levi’s love for his work and his well-publicized enthusiasm for comic books show constantly. It’s obvious he’s having fun and frankly, the joy is infectious.
That joy is an important aspect of this film. Warner Brothers’ contribution to similar blockbusters for the past few years have been grasping for a way to differentiate themselves from the other company dominating comic book adaptations.
The first method was to present characters in a new, darker light. Story and entertainment were foregone for brooding and grim takes on characters that should be easy to root for. But while there’s no problem with a more serious approach, in theory, realism isn’t always the most important area of focus for a kind of movie that is primarily about escapism.
“Shazam!”, however, is clearly meant to be a response and antithesis to the studio’s previous output, drawing influence from some of the goofiest elements of its source material and from family adventure movies of the ’80s and ’90s (there is at least one direct reference to 1988s “Big”, surely one of the biggest inspirations of this work).
While enjoyable, “Shazam!” does have its flaws. There are some rough spots in both editing and direction, where the film doesn’t flow as smoothly as it should. Much of the supporting cast comes off as wooden (especially some of the child actors, though they are frequently adorable). And while it does add a different perspective to the film, the difference in tone between thrilling and fun could be jarring at times for some audiences. The film can also only do so much within the well-defined framework of the superhero film. These movies are being cranked out at such a rate that any audience member is no doubt familiar with many of the story’s beats.
The script does, however, do its best to escape the trappings of similar films. This often comes in the form of knowing, satirical humor. The jokes in the film don’t always land, but they never feel cynical. Even when poking fun at superhero stereotypes, it’s obvious that these jokes were written by people who love and appreciate these very tropes. They’re part of the genre, and the genre is an escape.
“Shazam!” is a simple film, but it understands that medium of escapism. Superhero cinema may be corny, homogenized and at this point overdone, but when done right it reminds us of one of the main purposes of the film. It may be childish, but that just means it has the power to instill a sense of wonder in a young audience, one that could go on to create great works of art in their own right.
In the final act of “Shazam!”, every character in an ensemble of young misfits gets an individual chance to be a hero, and that should be worth the price of admission for young audiences and families.