Ever since DC started with their connected cinematic universe in 2013 with the launch of Man of Steel, it's been obvious they've been hoping to copy the successful Marvel formula. Single movies have managed to entertain, but after having seen all of DC's biggest heroes (and villains) on the big screen, it's easy to see that DC is struggling to compete with Marvel. So what does DC do when they've spent all their biggest assets? Well, they send in the lesser known Shazam and make a more comedy-focused superhero movie. Does it do the trick? It certainly goes a long way...
The hero Shazam is also known under the name Captain Marvel (confusingly enough), but as we all know there's another superhero movie out by that name. Both the Marvel and DC universes have a hero called Captain Marvel, and while DC was first with it (strictly speaking it was Fawcett Comics, but they sold on the license in 1972). To sidestep confusion and potential legal issues DC has chosen to rename their hero Shazam, the magical word that transforms Billy Batson to a superhero. It's not a terrible compromise to market the new movie under the Shazam title in other words, and it certainly helps avoid a lot of headache.
In Shazam! we meet the young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who in his hunt for his biological mother drifts from one foster home to another. He gets caught up in a conflict with some kids and all of a sudden he is whisked away to the mysterious domain of wizards, where a bearded wizard (Djimon Hounsou) is looking for someone to be a champion for what's right and save the world from the seven deadly sins. By uttering Shazam the young teenager Billy is turned into a big and strong superhero (played by Zachary Levi), without his personality or mental capacity changing. Shazam doesn't get long to familiarise himself with his newfound powers as he needs to take on the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong).
The fact that Billy remains a teenager when he turns into Shazam opens up for plenty of comical situations. This is the primary driving force in the movie, and thankfully it works surprisingly well through its entirety. Zachary Levi's take on Shazam is seriously funny and you end up buying the somewhat silly premise of a young boy in a grown body thanks to hilarious acting and situations. Thanks to tactful directing the scenes never drag out for too long either. And so DC has done a good job in creating a proper superhero comedy, the first one in recent times (apart from Deadpool perhaps), even if some would argue movies like Thor: Ragnarok also belongs in this category. But Shazam! comes across as a comedy first and a superhero movie second, unlike the other ones.
The biggest selling point here is that it's a warmhearted and fun flick, far removed from the dark pictures that this DC universe first introduced. And while we appreciate the dark tone in a movie like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (the problems with that film lie elsewhere), but Shazam gives us the same feel-good vibes as the classic Superman movies with Christopher Reeve in the late 1970s (something that's underlined by the last scene of the movie). The underlying themes here of the role and meaning of family makes it approachable and it's nice to be treated to a superhero film that doesn't go to extremes to be funny, edgy, or dark. With the exception of some lacking effects Shazam! is a superhero movie for the entire family, something that's sorely missing in today's crowded landscape of superhero films. It's not that we want all of them to be like this, but it's nice to see something made along these lines.
But in spite of all these qualities, we're still dealing with an origins movie, with all the inherent weaknesses that bring along. It takes a while to get going, and the first 30-45 minutes are a bit dull. The villain, Dr. Sivana played by Mark Strong, also feels a bit generic and uninspired. The digital special effects sometimes look like they've been summoned from movies more than a decade old. This is an area where Marvel has always excelled, and DC seems to struggle.
As fans of DC Comics, we still didn't have much of a relationship to Shazam apart from when he made appearances in cross-over stories, like Final Crisis. And so we approached the film without any major expectations but came away happy with what we experienced. Shazam! is a warm superhero film that will make you smile numerous times, and that it makes us think of a long past generation of superhero movies only serves to make the experience stronger. Neither Aquaman nor Shazam! may rank among the best superhero movies ever made, but they did something to inject a bit of much-needed hope for the future for this connected DC universe.