#4 in my ranking of the DCEU franchise.
I actually watched the DCEU movies a bit out of order. Immediately preceding my viewing of David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! I watched Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. Starting up this I was relieved to see the simply building blocks of story presented in an order that made narrative sense, and I almost cheered. Sandberg’s adventure into newfound superhero abilities has some issues along the way that drag it down a bit, but it’s nice to see that Warner Brothers can still hire a director who understands storytelling at the most basic of levels.
So, magic. The DCEU embraces straight up magic for the first time. I can dig it. So, Billy Batson is a foster kid moving from home to home as he puts on a one-man search for his mother whom he lost when he was about four. At fourteen, he’s run through dozens of names and still can’t find her. At the same time, an ancient wizard loses control of the Seven Deadly Sins to Doctor Sivana. Desperate, the wizard magically delivers Billy to his temple and gifts Billy his powers in order to fight in his stead, turning Billy into Shazam, a superhero who looks like an adult, and this is the source of a lot of the movie’s light humor.
Shazam is a kid at heart, so seeing him act like a kid, all buffed up and with superpowers, is amusing. It’s also a complete retread, so it’s nice to see the movie give a direct reference to Penny Marshall’s Big. And I think it ends up being how the movie flags in its second act. There’s no real direction to Billy after he gets his powers. He’s happy to show them off, discover what they are, and take out some petty revenge here and there, but he doesn’t seem to have any drive. It’s weird because he has a central goal, which is to find his mother, but once he has these powers he not only doesn’t use them to help him accomplish his central goal, he completely forgets about the goal. There’s a certain understanding since he’s a fourteen year old who gained superpowers, but he has them for days and doesn’t even think about his mother until someone else hands him an address.
There’s a thematic connection between Billy’s search and the rest of the movie, that of family and finding it where you can. Billy finds his mother who, it turns out, just abandoned him. Instead, he has the group home of foster kids to fall back on. Contrasted to that is Doctor Sivana who rejected his own family and any sense of community with anyone else including the ancient wizard, spending his years searching out for that hidden temple and the seven deadly sins, which he eventually finds and takes for his own. He won’t be at full power until he beats the wizard’s champion, Billy. Hence, the conflict. I wish there was something connecting Sivana to Billy’s mom directly. Something like Sivana kidnapping Billy’s mom thinking that there’s a special connection, but Billy is reticent about doing anything because he found out she rejected him. However, he uses the power of family from his group home siblings to help her or something. Instead Sivana does kidnap his adopted family, which is in the same wheelhouse but too easy in the other direction.
That aimless act drags the film down, but once it’s over, the movie gains some focus again. While it doesn’t take advantage enough of the family angle, it does focus in on it, giving Billy an avenue to accepting his new group home as the new family he needs without clinging to the past and a woman who doesn’t want him.
The other major problem I have with the film is Doctor Sivana and his Seven Deadly Sins. Sivana is thin and uninteresting. As played by Mark Strong you might expect more, but he’s just a generic bad guy with daddy issues. And the Seven Deadly Sins all run together. If you really focus on them, you can tell the differences in design, though they’re all colored the same which seems like a missed opportunity. However, it takes a surprising amount of attention to delineate one from another, and they all just kind of run together, ending up feeling rather generic as well. Another miss.
In the end, though, the movie’s an unchallenging little superhero movie that aims primarily towards children. It’s amusing and cleanly told. For some that will be a more than welcome change to the franchise that they’ve considered to be off the rails from the beginning. For me, it’s nice, but I look back at the cinematic ambition of the first two DCEU films and sigh, happy to have something better than okay but much less than the aims of where the franchise started.