1978’s Superman promised audiences that they’d believe a man could fly. In 2019, Shazam adds an extra wrinkle to that promise by telling audiences that they’ll believe a boy can turn into a man, and then fly. It’s an even goofier premise than most superhero films, and Shazam absolutely runs with that fact, making for the most childish, but also most enjoyable, DCEU outing yet. Aimed squarely at younger audiences, it’s a film that prioritises family moments over universe building. Though it does suffer from common DCEU problems like being overlong and some shonky CGI, it overcomes these faults by feeling more akin to the delightful Saturday morning Justice League Unlimited cartoons than Batman v Superman.
Henry Gayden’s script doesn’t rush to get to the superhero stuff, instead spending its first 20 or so minutes introducing us to rebellious 14 year old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel, giving a remarkably assured performance) and his latest makeshift family. Though it errs on the lighter side, Shazam earns the grit it does have with its loving and believable portrayal of a lower middle class group home, imperfect but filled with genuine care. After proving himself by standing up to his new foster brother Freddy’s (Jack Dylan Grazer) bullies, Billy is chosen by the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Honsou) to become his new champion, a super-strong, super-fast, super-electrified demi-god in the form of Zachary Levi.
Levi is absolutely key to making Shazam work, and as the titular hero, he commits full bore to the role and is a springy, silly joy to watch. Billy can switch between child and adult forms just by saying ‘Shazam’, and Levi – always looking like an action figure of himself – never loses sight of the fact that he’s a kid in a grown up body, stumbling over words whenever he attempts to appear mature and generally just thrilled with his powers. Though the obvious comparison point is Big, Shazam doesn’t lean too hard into the body swap aspect, instead striking more of a balance between Spiderman Homecoming and the early Harry Potters in terms of tone.
There are a lot of laughs and a lot of charming warmth – it’s even set at Christmas (making its Easter-ish release rather puzzling, it feels like prime December family fodder) – but also some welcome frights. As villain Thaddeus Sivana, Mark Strong is menacing, if rather one note, and his demonic sidekicks, The Seven Deadly Sins, are creepy and grotesque. One particularly murderous set piece with them really reminds you that director David F Sandberg mostly works as a horror filmmaker.
Shazam certainly gets carried away with its own cheesiness at times, and its plentiful good jokes are often balanced out by painfully obvious ones. Yet, it’s very hard to dock it points for this, especially given that all of DC’s previous caped hero efforts have been so dour and miserable. You’ll see the Big Inspirational Moment in the final fight coming from miles away, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t land with a spirit-lifting punch, and there are even a couple of genuinely moving scenes of familial togetherness.
With genre magnum opus Avengers Endgame right around the corner, Shazam feels like a slight entry into the comic book movie canon, but it’s precisely this slightness that makes it work so well. In making sure this story of a childlike superhero actually appeals to, well, children, it strips away any of the ponderousness or overly high stakes that might have weighed it down and is instead a mightily fun romp. Levi proves to be absolutely perfect casting, his infectious joy selling this wish fulfilment fantasy completely, whether he’s doing a dance from Fortnite or saving Santa from a four-armed monster.