“Shazam!” the latest collaboration between DC Comics and Warner Bros., represents the newest comic book superhero movie to make it to theaters and it won’t be the last. Just this month, we will be seeing two more: “Hellboy” and “Avengers: Endgame,” and in the coming months we will be getting “Dark Phoenix,” “Spider-Man: Far from Home” and “The Joker.”
For some, we’ve reached a saturation point and genre fatigue is setting in. Superhero films still draw huge money, so clearly they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but will more people start saying “Ugh, not ANOTHER superhero film?”
The noteworthy thing about superhero films as a genre is that they can be many different things. A romantic comedy or film noir has easily definable tropes and while superhero films do as well, they can also be blended with other genres.
This is what has allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe to stay fresh: “Captain America: Winter Soldier” is a spy film,” “Ant-Man” is a heist film, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a teen film, and so forth.
The tone of superhero films can vary wildly from dark and brooding to comedic and broad and everything in between. “Logan” is a somber character study, whereas “Deadpool” is a crass, self-aware R-rated comedy, and both technically exist in the same X-Men universe.
The forthcoming “Joker” is a Martin Scorsese-influenced descent into madness that recalls “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” So, while it may seem like superhero films are interchangeable, many have a distinct flavor.
Which brings us back to “Shazam!” a blend of numerous genres, including teen comedy, family drama, fantasy, body-swap comedy, superhero and parody. The film balances the dark with the light. All of this makes the film a metaphor for what the superhero genre has become: a little something for everyone.
Shazam (originally Captain Marvel, but no more due to copyright issues, and no relation to the film currently in theaters) dates back to 1940, making him one of the original comic book heroes alongside the likes of Superman and Batman.
As in the comics, the film focuses on Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old foster kid who is bestowed a bevy of superpowers by an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Any time Billy says “Shazam,” he transforms into a muscle-bound hero (Zachary Levi).
Much of the film plays like a superhero version of “Big,” with adult Billy exploring and exploiting his powers alongside his comic-book loving foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Their fun dynamic and easy chemistry recalls that of Tom Hanks and Jared Rushton in “Big.”
The duo gets into some mischief, including buying beer and going to strip club, which seems like what would happen if a teen was given powers. Not everyone can be a goody-two-shoes like Peter Parker. For awhile, Billy even uses his powers to make money as a street performer. Eventually, Billy steps up to the plate and becomes a true hero.
Similar to Hanks, Levi captures the essence of an awkward teen in an adult body. The youthful energy and enthusiasm is in stark contrast to the typical stoic attitude of most superheroes. In fact, Levi’s performance really only falters when he has to put on serious face. Instead of looking determined, he seems constipated.
Angel is equally engaging as the 14-year-old Billy and carries some dramatic scenes as well as comedic ones. Billy lost his mother at a carnival as a boy and has been searching for her ever since. As an audience, we know the outcome of this search will only be heartache, but to Angel’s credit he keeps this subplot emotionally grounded.
Naturally, there is a villain, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who met the wizard in his youth and was deemed unworthy of his powers. Sivana became obsessed with getting the abilities he feels be deserves. He gets his own set of powers when he combines with a group of evil demons known as the Seven Deadly Sins.
Strong has played his fair share of villains, but Sivana, in Strong’s own words, is “an evil bastard,” that the actor is clearly having fun playing. This is villain who has no compunction about brutally murdering his own family. While this is a largely kid-friendly film, parents should take the PG-13 rating seriously, as some of the film may be too intense for young kids.
Outside of the humor — including a great scene playing on the cliche of the monologuing villain — the best aspect of the film is the sense of family. Billy’s foster family is well-defined and cast.
The foster parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) project a genuine sense of warmth, patience and love. The foster kids (Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen and Jovan Armand) all add something to the equation. Herman is a particular stand out as Darla, who is cute without being overbearing. The foster siblings factor into the climax in a way that is surprising, funny and thrilling.
“Shazam!” is a fun superhero film that isn’t as polished as some, but that’s part of its scrappy charm. Like the hero at its center, it’s trying to find its footing, and ultimately it sticks the landing in a big way.