Over the past decade of superhero films in all their varied success, many critics have attempted to predict the eventual demise of this genre. So does Shazam! prove the naysayers wrong?
The team at Warner’s DCEU (DC Extended Universe), even with recent hits like Aquaman and Wonder Woman, has yet to catch on with fans in the same way as Disney. To introduce a lesser known character like Captain Marvel – or Shazam as he is known in the world of DC – gives off a feeling of desperation, and looks to telegraph the conclusion of good ideas at Warner Brothers. Can Billy Batson (Asher Angel) be the saving grace that DC needs so desperately? Or will he fail to launch into the sky?
Unlike the backstories of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, this teen’s life may be less familiar to the general public. Billy became a ward of the state at an early age and was moved through the foster care system multiple times during his young life. Even though he continues to search for his birth mother, he is given the ultimatum to do all he can to remain in his newest home with the loving and caring Vasquez family. While adjusting to all of his new ‘family” and his new school, the runaway comes to the aid of his foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). After defending his disabled sibling, Billy runs from the bullies and is magically transported to a different realm that is inhabited by an ancient wizard – Shazam (Djimon Hounsou).
Turns out, the Wizard Shazam has been searching for a person with a pure heart to whom he can pass on his powers, with the intention for him to become the Champion of Eternity and battle the seven deadly sins of the world. Young Billy becomes the bearer of this new role and gains all of the powers of Shazam (Zachary Levi), which includes the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, and the ability to summon lightning like Zeus. These new powers include a more mature body, but do not come with an instruction book. With Freddy’s extensive knowledge of all things superhero, he begins the journey of self-discovery, learning what he can do with his new found talents.
While uncovering the depth of his powers, a new threat comes upon the scene that will force the young teen to determine his depth of character and heart. Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has acquired the powers of the seven deadly sins, and desires to take away all that Billy has been given. The young man is forced to determine what is really important in life and whether he will hold on to his new abilities.
Shazam! has the potential to deliver the heart needed in the DCEU. A delinquent teen with a heart of gold who becomes a hero should have all of the hallmarks of a blockbuster, such as the much-needed humour and innocence that has not existed throughout this series. The problem that stands out about this film, though, is that Billy Batson is supposed to be ‘pure of heart’ – yet very little of his life proves this to be true.
“Billy Batson is supposed to be ‘pure of heart’ – yet very little of his life proves this to be true.”
Lead actor Zachary Levi is a proven comedic force in the industry who seems confused by his character. He seems to struggle with the ethical juxtaposition of his role against some exceptionally uncomfortable story arches. The character is meant to be a flawed teenager with a heart of gold, but his first choices after getting his powers – buying beer, going to a strip club and destroying a bully’s truck – prove that his heart is less than pure.
The script tries to make up for these moral weaknesses by introducing a strong family theme, but this comes a bit too late and leaves Levi to walk around bewildered for most of the film. Even if this film is labelled as a coming of age film, the majority of the film does not deliver the moral core that is at the centre of this genre.
Devout DC fans could argue that Shazam! exists outside the world of the Justice League, but director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) capitalises on a multitude of the legendary comic characters to support his story and has his hero land squarely in the thick of the DCEU. Even though he uses themes from Big, Goonies and even The Greatest America Hero (dated reference – look it up!) as a means of lightening the overarching dark tone of this franchise, his use of excessive violence and other mature themes pulls this whimsical character back into the dark realm of its predecessors.
While there are funny moments and original concepts in the film, they prove to be mere flashes of inspiration that fail to get the support needed to make this a fresh addition to this world of superheroes.
Watching Shazam! is reminiscent of the parental experience of observing the potential of their teenager, but seeing them make misstep after misstep while on the journey to adulthood. A loving parent could see the possibilities for this character are endless, but in the end, Billy proves to be a disappointment.
REEL DIALOGUE: How do you define family?
The family is of high value in the eyes of God. It can be considered a bittersweet gift, but it is a gift none the less. Regardless of your personal reality with family, have you taken the time to show your parents, children and extended family the appreciation for the blessing that they are to you?
- What is sacrificial love? (John 15:13, Ephesians 5:25)
- What is the value of family? (John 15:12-17, Ephesians 5: 21)
- How should we respond to difficulties in life? (Romans 5:3-5, 1 Peter 5:10)