Going into Shazam!, all I knew about it came from that poster everywhere, of a guy with overly manicured eyebrows blowing a big bubble with a vaguely coquettish facial expression, like Deadpool for younger kids. He was a Captain Marvel, but not the Marvel Comics Captain Marvel? Who wants to get deep enough into the weeds of 20th-century comic book publisher IP disputes to figure that one out?
Needless to say, I was not expecting much.
Coming out of it, it was honestly hard to come up with a comic book title that’s better. There are comic book titles that are good in different ways, but to fairly qualify the superlatives… Shazam! is the most successfully comedic comic book movie ever made. It manages to be playful without being overly hammy, heartfelt without being schmaltzy, and somehow lighthearted with sneaky depth. For all the auteurs, artists, and known quantities studios have thrown at comic book titles, Shazam! director David F. Sandberg, the guy from… uh, Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation… just ate their lunch.
The central conceit of Shazam! is that Shazam is a 14-year-old kid who becomes a Superman-esque superhero by speaking the magic word “Shazam!” The kid in question is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a Philadelphia delinquent who keeps running away from foster homes to try to find his mom, who he lost at a carnival when he was seven. The powers are given to him by a dying wizard played by Djimon Hounsou, who’s been trying to find someone “pure of heart” for 30 years, but now kind of just needs to bequeath his powers in a hurry so that his successor can save humanity from the seven deadly sins. Who have taken form as CGI gargoyles, naturally.
That’s right, the bad guys in Shazam! are the seven deadly sins and the hero gets his powers from a wizard. Those are just the kind of plot points you’re stuck with when you resurrect a character created in the thirties. The beauty of Sandberg’s Shazam!, written by equally unknown quantity Henry Gayden, is that it manages this deft tonal dance, where the characters acknowledge the silliness of the story while staying committed to it — the jokes are self-aware but not fourth wall breaking; they grow out of the story rather than coming at the expense of it.
Shazam! manages to retain the innocence of early adolescence without losing its natural mischievousness. Billy Batson is a kid who wants his mom, but he’s also 14, and thus kind of a little shit. When he gets his powers (which turn him temporarily into a grown man, played by Zachary Levi, who does some incredible work here), he does what you’d expect a 14-year-old to do with them: he goes to a strip club. He uses his powers for parlor tricks at the mall and the park. He buys beer and immediately spits it out and buys soda instead. If he’d somehow used his lighting hand powers to light farts it’d be perfect.
There hasn’t been a director who captured this adolescent stew of innocence, ignorance, naughtiness, and neediness so well since Sam Raimi (with all due respect to Into The Spider-Verse). And unlike Raimi’s first Spider-Man, Shazam! doesn’t have to deal with being set in New York right after 9/11. Though they do capture the pure joy of a kid discovering his powers in similar ways.
It’s hard to escape the inherent religiosity of a story where the bad guys are the seven deadly sins, and while Shazam! isn’t overtly Catholic or Christian, it never tries to. In its way, it’s a better “faith-based” film than anything from Pureflix, inculcating values in a universal way, more the way religion was probably intended than the my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God way it’s so often expressed (especially by Pureflix and the Kirk Cameron cabal). Whereas most superhero stories are inherently Calvinist, tautologically explaining that the good guy is good because he vanquishes the bad, who’s bad because he’s bad and an enemy of good; Shazam!‘s villain is the seven deadly sins. The film cheats a little by not entirely articulating exactly what greed, lust, envy etc. actually are in practice, but it understands the larger picture: the seven deadly sins are just a way to say don’t be an asshole.
Thus Shazam‘s villain isn’t just some bad guy spawned from hell, Shazam‘s villain is being an asshole. Pure, irredeemable evil doesn’t exist in this universe, nor does pure, unsullied good — only fallible humans, who all struggle with the temptation to be an asshole, some of whom succeed more than others. Mark Strong plays Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, the man who has most succumbed to his assholier temptations, and the fact that the facets of his assholery are all made manifest in individual gargoyles sort of makes Shazam! the movie Inside Out wanted to be. Shazam vs. the seven assholes of the apocalypse (incidentally, Shazam’s cape pattern looks an awful lot like a priest’s robe).
The secret of all religion is that it’s probably less about finding “God” than it is about finding community, a group among whom you belong. So many religious traditions are just ways of retaining and reinforcing that, scratching that itch that only lets us feel content when we’re a valued member of a larger group. This is precisely Billy Batson’s journey in Shazam!. Being that he’s a foster kid abandoned by his mom, you’d think his story would turn on revenge, or the magical properties of who his “real mom” is, and fulfilling his birthright (how many sci-fi stories are inherently monarchist?). Nope. Shazam! is just about Billy finding his people. Which turn out to be his siblings in a loving, six-child foster home — a multi-cultural crew whose personalities are more developed than you usually get in these movies (also just as a side note, one kid is a dead ringer for Artie Lange).
Shazam! is organically “cute” in a way that these movies almost never are, the rare cute that’s a compliment. I want to compare it to Edgar Wright or 30 Rock, but that’s unfair: Shazam! is its own, singular thing: a genuinely sweet, funny, un-phony comic book movie.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his archive of reviews here.