Angry and adamant foster-kid Billy Batson jumps into a zone of super-awesome he’d never have dreamed of.
Makes a case for every kind of story in the DCEU, giving every tone an equal footing. Highly recommended.
If I told you Shazam!—the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe (the DCEU, for brevity’s sake)—was about the adverse effects of toxic masculinity, you wouldn’t believe me, but it’s true. Let’s back up a bit though; director David F. Sandberg’s (Lights Out, 2016) third feature-length film is a blockbuster addition to the DCEU—let’s acknowledge for a moment just how fantastic an achievement this is for a filmmaker. Following the weird roller-coaster lives of Billy Batson (Asher Angel; Disney Channel series Andi Mack) and his now-foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer; It, 2017), the film continues the franchise’s overall exploration of isolation and feeling other-ed. But this is just text—and you could argue it’s more subtext than text, although it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call these overarching themes main text.
[The DCEU] definitely loves to follow various social constructs and the factors that define who the characters end up becoming.
Arguably, Shazam!’s subtext actually explores the harm the long-running ideas of toxic masculinity pose, not just on women who have to be confronted by them, but also on the men that internalize them. Through the opening scene itself, Sandberg and writers Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo, 2014) and Darren Lemke (The Parts You Lose, 2019) set up an entire foundation, creating a ripple effect through the rest of the film’s runtime. Branching out into themes of acceptance, DC’s latest origin story is also quite passionate about how you get mutual empowerment from the families you choose, as opposed, quite a few times, to the ones you don’t. Batson and antagonist Thaddeus Sivana (performed with jaw-dropping aplomb by Mark Strong; Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2015) brilliantly represent the two sides to this very metaphorical coin.
Then again, it’s what most DCEU films are known for—or, for that matter, most well-rounded superhero stories. The fight between good and evil always comes from a particular turning point in a characters life that could lead them to either extreme. From the stark differences between Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) to the struggle for mass acceptance in Aquaman (2018), the franchise definitely loves to follow various social constructs and the factors that define who the characters end up becoming. In Shazam!, Sandberg, Gayden, and Lemke look at either extreme in familial structures, the problem with privilege, and the joy of choosing a family that’s stronger than any blood tie could ever be.
Bats-man v Sivanaman: Dawn of Slurpstice
Zachary Levi and Mark Strong star in David F. Sandberg's Shazam!, a Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, and DC Films release.
And it all just comes together—cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s (Annabelle: Creation, 2017) dynamic visual flair, the pulsating sounds of Benjamin Wallfisch (A Cure to Wellness, 2017), and Sandberg’s overall control of the narrative’s metaphorical steering wheel. In pure harmony, the movie drives through its various tones and emotional volatility with a flow that both feels graceful and occurs naturally. Sandberg, in particular, puts his mad visual storytelling skills for everyone to see. As has been rendered visible through inspired choices like James Gunn for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), or Richard Donner for Superman, Sandberg’s history with horror makes him practically the perfect choice for a movie dealing with trauma, the anger that arises from isolation, and the various dark paths one can be led to as a result.
[…] it’s great to see the DCEU evolve in ways that allow the universe to diverge into wildly different storytelling perspectives.
All that effort would be wasted if not for the fantastic cast. Zachary Levi (NBC’s Chuck, 2007-2012), in particular, shines as Batson’s “Shazam!” form. He’s legitimately excellent and has a wide range the makers are more than happy to utilize throughout the film’s runtime. Supporting him are Angel and Grazer, who are both terrific and deliver a very authentic performance. Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel, 2019) is brilliant, and—at the risk of repetition—so is Strong. Ian Chen (ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat) boasts incredible comic timing, and Faithe Herman brings her own brand of zany to the diverse cast of characters. The synergy shared by each member of the cast with each other is infectious at its best, and—quite honestly—it makes the entire ride worth it.
Will this be the movie to save the DCEU though? No, because it wasn’t precisely doomed in the first place—more than two-thirds of the franchise has been commercially successful. What the latest film in this series does, however, is to help every style choice and storytelling structure to have an equal footing in the universe. Hope and despair are two sides of the same coin, and it’s impossible to manufacture how it makes both characters in fiction, or the viewers, feel. Moving away from the artifices of the everything-is-awesome brand (looking at you, Suicide Squad and Justice League), it’s great to see the DCEU evolve in ways that allow the universe to diverge into wildly different storytelling perspectives. Shazam! is only a piece of that pie, and oh boy what a delicious one it is.
Shazam! is an absolute blast from start to finish, with a bevy of incredible performances by the cast, and David F. Sandberg’s razor-sharp focus as a director to boast. The film’s got a beating heart and is for the kid in every single one of us. You can’t miss this one while it’s still on the big screen. Highly recommended.