Team-up movie Justice League was in the offing, Ben Affleck was still firmly ensconced as Batman, and it seemed as if the overlapping DC comics Extended Universe could become a rival to Marvel’s blockbuster dominance.
But then Justice League became a box office bomb, scrapping any further crossover plans.
That said, DC and Warner Bros did have success with Aquaman and the first Wonder Woman movie, suggesting that the studios should focus on solo superhero movies and leave the big crossovers to Marvel.
In some ways, Shazam! feels like it belongs to the more crossover-friendly period in DC’s recent history. Full of references, callbacks and even props from earlier movies (a crucial batarang really was used in Batman vs Superman), it’s firmly a part of a DCEU that doesn’t really exist any more – if it ever did. It’s a little bit sad to note all the references that are already a bit out of date.
On the other hand, if DC and Warner Bros’ future really is in solo movies, Shazam! is a pretty great advert for that. While perhaps not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of Marvel’s masterful wisecracking, this is one of the more enjoyable, warm and heartfelt superhero movies I’ve seen in a while.
Asher Angel stars as Billy Batson, a young foster kid who is unexpectedly given great powers by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become a clean-cut, adult superhero called… well, that’s never quote resolved (the complications around this character’s name, who used to be called Captain Marvel but now obviously can’t be any more, are legendary).
Whatever his name is, this strapping figure is played by Zachary Levi, who has to team up with his hero-nerd foster brother Freddy (IT’s Jack Dylan Frazer) to learn everything there is about superhero-ing before baddie Mark Strong can take his powers from him.
That’s the basic storyline anyway, as laid out in the trailers – but it’s not what the film is about. Really, this film is about Billy’s pain after being lost by his family, and the community he discovers in a “group” foster home even as he continually tries to escape somewhere else.
SHAZAM! is basically if SHOPLIFTERS was a superhero movie directed by Sam Raimi. it works like a charm from start to finish.
Bizarrely, as noted by Indiewire critic David Ehrlich above, the film has more in common with Oscar-nominated Japanese movie Shoplifters than it does with many of its Warner Bros peers, exploring ideas of imperfect biological family versus more fulfilling relationships with non-relations.
Family is hardly a new topic for superhero movies, of course, but Shazam! is far more sophisticated and involving than the usual “no, we’re family!” (sorry, Suicide Squad) emotional climaxes of hero team-up flicks.
Shazam! brings heart to a DC universe of heroes that has often lacked real warmth and depth.
It’s also super fun to watch, with an emotionally satisfying story and some genuinely moving moments. It’s a healthy sign for some sort of future for DC’s superhero stable – even if it’s not the one they originally planned.