Amidst the ongoing battle between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe for dominance, the arrival of “Shazam” feels significant because of its divergence. If the current superhero bubble feels less focussed on individual films and more interested in their context within their larger universes, then “Shazam” is a welcome salve. There’s something refreshing about a superhero film that devotes its energies to developing its own limited perspective rather than trying to loop together multiple ones. So the self-contained story of ancient wizard’s search for a champion to inherit his powers is compelling in its directness. But, “Shazam” has more to its credit than its self-contained narrative.
We begin with a cold-open, in 1974, a young boy, ignored by his father and dismissed by his older brother, is rejected by the wizard when he is transported to a magical temple in a hidden dimension. He is not one pure of heart, and is not inheritor of the wizard’s great powers. The rejection is mere addendum for our actual story, but it’s placement at the beginning defines the way that “Shazam” will develop as a film, with clear-eyed focus on the way that children are at the mercy of the adults in their lives.
Our actual protagonist, Billy Batson, is a foster teen who has been running afoul of the law and multiple foster parents as he keeps searching for the mother who he lost at a fair as a child. Billy’s methodical disregard for those around him is tested when he’s placed in a group home with a family of five other foster children who threaten to break down his emotional walls. But Billy encounters a bigger crisis when that aging wizard from 1974, on his last legs, summons Billy to his lair to transfer his powers to him. Billy, chosen for skill or expediency – we can’t be sure – must now come into his own still as a 15-year-old but now in the body of a well-built adult man in a bright-red superhero suit. This is “Shazam.”
What follows is an identity comedy, which evokes the 1980s classic “Big.” Billy must navigate between his teen self and his alter-ego but it’s not all fun-and-games, for where there’s a superhero, there will be a supervillain. Like last year’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Shazam” has a vested interest in children and the ways they can be heroes in their own right. Billy, along with his foster-brother Freddy, a superhero obsessive, must navigate the parameters of his powers and the strength of his heroism. It’s all very familiar coming-of-age stuff but distilled with more than enough sincerity, humour and warmth to immediately elicit honest emotive responses from its audience. “Shazam” cares about its characters, not just as means to an end a film or two away, but as real people struggling to navigate real-world issues.
Much has been said about the relative darkness of the DCEU films when measured against the MCU. For its worst critics, it’s an onerous attempt at profundity that can become exhausting. Following in the footsteps of the less impressive “Aquaman,” “Shazam” leans into that warmth by way of zaniness. And there are potential comparisons to be made to “Wonder Woman” in the way it centres heroism in wholesome wonder rather than jaded cynicism. And “Shazam” is filled with warmth. It’s about children after all, but what’s impressive about that tonal warmth and kinetic energised panache of “Shazam” is that the warmth that it ekes out on all levels is not a blind to the darkness of the world. There are images in “Shazam,” in scenes where it follows its primary villain, that conjure unease and horror in evocative ways. These moments are all the more unsettling for the sincerity of feeling and warmth that comes from its core.
“Shazam” is 132 minutes long and its length has been harnessed as its most significant issue. It’s long for a film which has an interest in minor chords rather than major occurrences. And with that length, there’s an implicit messiness to the way the story devolves. But, it’s that messiness that seems immediately necessary and valuable in its plot focus. It’s about the messiness that comes with trying to be a good person in a world that does not always have your best interest at heart. It’s about the messiness of growing up while trying to retain your capacity for wonder. And it’s in that way that “Shazam” leans into its young protagonists, which feels so compelling. “Shazam” is about children and their scars. The fact that it’s set over Christmastime feels integral to this – the season of giving, love and forgiveness. It lends a treacly sheen to everything but it’s one born out of sincerity and hope, which never feels like schmaltz.
At the climax of “Shazam,” Billy Batson must decide whether he wants to choose a family for himself or survive it as a lone wolf. We know what kind of film this is and so we know what his answer will be. That doesn’t make the emotional effect of his choice, or the moment where he really realises the power of family, less moving. This is openhearted, nakedly heart-warming stuff. And it’s all the better for it.
“Shazam” is currently playing at local theatres.