Boys and girls, believe it or not, comic books used to be fun. Before dark knights, crises, and civil wars, you could read a self-contained story within a single issue and simply have a good time. No angst, no breakdowns, no continuity. And the pages used to be printed in bright colors, not dark inks. Reading them would leave you with a smile on your face, not a break in your heart.
I’m not saying all movies based on comic book movies are depressing. Many are a lot of fun. However, I don’t recall one that better represents the actual experience of reading a classic comic book than Shazam! It’s bright, it’s fun, and it plants a smile on your face that remains until the obligatory post-credits scene rolls. Watching it was one of the most consistently entertaining movie experiences I’ve had this year.
This is not to say that Shazam! is old-fashioned. Just because it’s a throwback in style doesn’t mean it’s out of date. It feels fresh and modern, while still believing, despite all contrary evidence, that people exist in this day and age who are pure of heart. It may be harder to find them, and just because young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a little rough around the edges, he’s still a good person.
Best of all, it represents the wonder we might actually experience if we suddenly found ourselves inside the body of a superhero. Imagine exploring your new powers. Can you fly? Let’s try it (maybe several times). Your suit is bulletproof, but how about your body? Let’s invite a convenience store robber to shoot you in the face. Can you turn invisible? If not, let’s create an opportunity to play a prank.
I’ve heard early reviews describing Shazam! as “goofy fun.” I’d argue that there’s nothing goofy about it. It’s good-natured, sure, but it’s also realistic when depicting children that find themselves in incredible circumstances. These children want to have fun, first; then realize their powers might force them into being responsible, second.
Billy Batson learns something about himself. In a way, he’s thrust into an early adulthood; he has to grow up. In another way, though, he never forgets he’s still a kid. Might that remind audiences there are still kids inside them? It did me. It also works in reverse because in many ways, as a foster child, he’s had to be an adult earlier than most kids. Being in an adult body actually allows him to act like a child.
This is risky material and I’m not sure the trailers have done a good job of selling the quality of Shazam! This is one movie for which I can really credit the director for putting it all together in such an effective manner. David F. Sandberg handles it brilliantly. After making horror films like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, he may have found his true calling within a different genre.
What he’s able to produce on screen had to come from a story first, though, and Henry Gayden wrote a great screenplay for Shazam! I don’t remember his one previous theatrical movie, Earth to Echo (2014), but this has me wanting to watch it. The story is framed by the origin, if you will, of the villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who has a compelling reason for being the bad guy.
Starting with Aquaman, the popular trend in themes for superhero movies seems to be “home:” going home, discovering your true home, etc. Captain Marvel did it better. Shazam! does it best, with the additional layer of “family.” Again, deftly handled, it’s not shoved down our throats. We know the outcome, but I wouldn’t call the road leading to the outcome “predictable.”
I honestly can’t think of anything to criticize about Shazam! If I was held hostage by one of the seven deadly sins come to life, I’d have to say it’s a little less special when the climactic battle ensues. Even then, though, something so marvelous happens that it becomes unique. There’s real suspense. There are real thrills. There are real laughs. There’s a real chance this could be DC’s biggest comic book movie yet.