Here’s a surprise, Shazam! is delightful, by far the most fun and upbeat—and optimistic—movie DC Films has produced. So it’s a little bit of a bummer the movie isn’t doing any better. It opened this weekend with $53 million, which isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either. It’s the lowest opening for a DCEU movie, and the only thing that will make this box office okay is Shazam!’s relatively low budget of $100 million (LOL “low”).
Shazam! is genuinely funny, wears a big heart on its sleeve, and is thematically consistent all the way through with its message. That’s actually not often the case with superhero movies, where the heroes too frequently throw themes out the window in the third act to satisfy a formula (see also: every Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Man of Steel, Infinity War trashing the theme of Guardians of the Galaxy). But Shazam! is true to its message, which is simple but timeless—intent doesn’t matter, actions do, and showing up for your family is important. Don’t get me wrong, though, Shazam the character is also kind of a dick. Because Shazam is a fourteen-year-old boy, and fourteen-year-old boys are kind of dicks.
Shazam is really Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel (THAT NAME) as a kid and Zachary Levi as the “full potential realized” superhero alter ego of Billy. He gets his powers from a dying wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who needs an heir and after decades of fruitless searching, settles for a dickish teen boy because there is literally no one else to pass his powers off to. When Billy yells “Shazam!”, he transforms from a teenager into a physically perfect and fully grown superhero, who has a battery of powers like invincibility, flight, and super-strength. (Yes, he’s very similar to Superman.) This is all very silly, but Shazam!’s appeal is classic kid power fantasy stuff, which is the heart of all comics. And Billy’s problems are very kid-centric—after getting lost as a child, he’s bounced around the foster system for years. He’s a troublemaker on his way to full-blown delinquency, but he’s still searching for his mom and longing for home. Billy is powerless, has no control over his life, is frustrated by adults who won’t just help him do the thing he’s trying to do, and just wants some security in his life. These are feelings every kid can identify with in some way.
If there is a flaw in Shazam!, though, it’s that it’s slightly too dark for small children. This is a concept designed for kids (Big with superheroes, complete with Big reference), and the message is also aimed squarely at kids who maybe need to be reminded it’s cool to ask for help and be nice to your siblings. But the bad guy, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), comes with some goblins that have frightening character designs, and some of the jokes are a little too grown up for the tots. It would be nice if ONE superhero movie could actually be for kids all the way through. Shazam! gets closest, and its best moments are all centered on the kids and their problems, but the monsters and humor are a little too grown up.
Shazam! is at its best when it’s catering to kids. Billy’s rapport with his new foster-siblings, led by Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), feels authentic and each kid, though not all fully developed characters, gets an identifying trait within their foster ecosystem. Young Darla just wants another brother to love, Ian retreats into video games, Pedro is withdrawn and sullen, and eldest Mary frets about abandoning her found family when she goes to college. Freddy is the most developed of them, and the one who loves superheroes. His prized possession is an authenticated “Superman bullet”, a mashed piece of metal that, presumably, bounced of Superman’s chest. Shazam! takes place in the world of the DCEU, where kids have Batman backpacks and Superman shirts, but those heroes feel as distant and unreal as they do in our world. Freddy’s love is part normal geekery, but also partly understandable as a symptom of his loneliness and his status as the differently-abled kid in class. Freddy, who struggles to walk, longs to fly.
The kids are wonderful, and give Shazam! its big heart. Billy is not a superhero trying to save the world—in fact, he does what pretty much any kid would do if given godlike powers, he poses for Insta and hustles for money—and his big second-act f-ck-up is simply not being there for Freddy when Freddy needs him. Billy has to overcome his selfishness and learn to value the family he finds before he can realize his full potential as a superhero. It’s one of the best hero moments in any superhero movie when Billy realizes how to be his best self, and the whole third-act battle is grounded in the idea that Billy is at his best when he is with his found siblings. This is superheroism as a group activity, not the sole province of lone wolves and rogues, and such a fun movie with some really heartwarming moments. Of all the DC movies, this deserves to be seen as much as Wonder Woman, but it’s going to settle into second-tier status, which is too bad because the vibrant, fun, hopeful Shazam is the kind of hero the DCEU needs.
Attached - Zachary Levi at the SNL afterparty in New York on the weekend.