The key ingredient to any great genre film, the great unifying factor that runs through them all, is sincerity.
You can’t make a good horror film unless you really believe the elements you’re working with can scare people, and you can’t make a good comedy film unless you really believe you’re going to make people laugh with it, or at least make yourselves laugh along the way. The same is true of superhero films. For all the talk about how so many of these movies should be “grounded” in some kind of cinematic reality, the true path to verisimilitude in these films lies in embracing the over-the-top of wonder of superheroics, and really leaning into the fantasy.
“Shazam!,” the latest DC Comics-based film about a superhero who can change forms with a magic word (formerly known as Captain Marvel, for those of you who recognize the look but not the name), is the perfect vehicle for that kind of leaning in to sincerity. The very concept of the character is a form of wish fulfillment storytelling for kids and adults alike, and with the right story that fulfillment can transcend to real heart. It would be easy to find filmmakers who would dismiss the very idea of Shazam! as silly and in need of some serious “grounded” rethinking, but in the hands of director David F. Sandberg and a terrific cast, “Shazam!” becomes the kind of superhero film we can all cheer for, one that radiates joy from start to finish.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 15-year-old orphan boy convinced he doesn’t need foster parents, who spends his day ducking authorities on the hunt for his real parents. When he lands in trouble yet again, he’s assigned a new foster family: The Vasquez family, where he’s welcomed and loved even if he doesn’t want to be. It’s in this new home that he meets Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero-obsessed disabled kid who tries to befriend Billy. When Billy rescues Freddy from a couple of nasty bullies, he is transported to meet with a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who informs him that he’s been chosen to become a great champion. From that point forward, when Billy says the word “Shazam,” he is transformed into a muscled, handsome, superpowered man (Zachary Levi), even if he does still have the mind of a 15-year-old.
With no one but Freddy to turn to, Billy must suddenly begin navigating life as a superhero, which for him includes everything from making hit viral videos to flirting with women twice his age. Then, of course, a real threat arrives in the form of Sivana (Mark Strong), an evil tycoon with an unflinching desire to take what Billy has, and the young hero is forced to choose between being super, or being a hero.
That’s a lot to take in, and that’s only scratching the surface of the “Shazam!” story, but the film makes it work, in part because Billy always has Freddy to talk to in a time of crisis or confusion. Their immediate chemistry, particularly as it sparks between Grazer and Levi, is both breezy and magnetic, and keeps you watching even when the film has to spend a chunk of time spewing out plot threads just so you can follow along.
Once you get past all the various comic book complexities of the story, though, the film is really about a young man grappling with what it means to be heroic, and it’s there that “Shazam!” really shines. Billy is a superhero cynic who has to slow come around to the understanding the he can actually do all the things he’s been cynical about, and running through that overarching theme are undercurrents of choosing your own family, learning to be a good person instead of just an impressive one, and fighting for others. The film processes all of these complex emotional threads even as its characters are offering up pointed, often hilarious meta-textual comedy about the ridiculousness of superhero costumes and how you figure out which superpowers you have or don’t have. That allows “Shazam!” to have all the thoughts of “grounded” superhero films while carrying none of the cynicism. It’s a film that wants to make jokes about comic book movies, but it’s also a film that wants its costumed hero to soar.
As a result, Sandberg’s film has a white-hot current of joy and purity running through every frame, the likes of which even some of the best superhero films being made today can’t always muster. It’s a film that wants you to believe in and laugh at its title character all at once, but it’s never a film that wants you to give in to something as dull as “realism.” This is a movie which understands on an atomic level how important it is to let superheroes exist as big, bold metaphors, and that means when the emotional punch of the film lands, it lands harder than a lot of other comic book films combined.
‘Shazam!’ is in theaters April 5.