Shazam review: Big kid in a cape gives us DC's most fun adventure yet

DC hits back at Captain Marvel with a superpowered version of classic comedy Big that completes DC's magical transformation.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Steve Wilkie

Shazam tells the story of a boy who makes a radical transformation when he says a magic word. Which is fitting, as Shazam marks the point where DC's superhero movies complete their own transformation.

Our hero, Billy Batson, is a teen tearaway escaping from foster homes and running rings around the police. He has a reason for not trusting anyone, even when he winds up in a group foster home that makes The Brady Bunch look like a crack house. But his problems are forgotten when he's transported to a mysterious cave where an ancient wizard zaps him with magic powers. At the uttering of a magic word, Billy becomes the magical hero Shazam, imbued with the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

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Zachary Levi is DC's big kid in a cape, Shazam.

Steve Wilkie

Oh, and he's also transformed into a full-grown adult in a red leotard. But even with this new face and body, he's still the same teenager inside. So Billy sets about using his new powers responsibly -- buying beer, getting into strip clubs and racking up hits on YouTube.

Which means he's woefully unprepared when a maniac with powers of his own comes calling...

The result is just a great night at the movies. Unexpected, hilarious and joyful, Shazam is a giddy, exuberant blast of superhero freshness. The idea that the hero is basically a kid gives the film a compelling and unique hook, and it's a hook the filmmakers work for endless laughs and action.   

The movie, in theaters April 5, succeeds because of a winningly guileless performance from Zachary Levi as Shazam. Levi wholeheartedly tosses aside gritty superhero cliches -- there's no affected gravelly voice here, no muscle-straining poses, no attempt to be "cool" at all. Instead, he throws himself into embodying a kid in a cape, brimming with immaturity and enthusiasm.

Levi's infectious performance smooths the transformation between Shazam's adult form and young Asher Angel as the teen Billy Batson. You totally buy that they're the same guy. Also helping to sell that relationship is the excellent Jack Grazer as Freddy Freeman, Billy's superhero-obsessed chum. Grazer has a warm, hilarious chemistry with both Levi and Angel, wringing laughs and pathos as the film mischievously up-ends superhero tropes.

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Freddy Freeman (left) establishes a winning chemistry with both Billy Batson and Shazam.

Steve Wilkie

And so, with this magic word, DC's course correction seems complete. The DC Extended Universe began with a run of movies -- Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League -- that willfully leached color and joy from their comic book source material. But DC and Warner Bros. have since made a concerted and welcome effort to reintroduce color into their superhero series. Wonder Woman was still kinda worthy, and even the gleefully campy Aquaman was anchored by an epic storyline about dynastic politics, but things have definitely gotten brighter.

And now, Shazam. The transformation is complete. The grim 'n' gritty darkness of the early DCEU movies seems like a distant memory.

That's not to say Shazam is lightweight. It's frothy, sure, but it's also grounded in considered characterization, both for the heroes and the villains. Shazam's chucklesome mischief takes up most of the movie, but as the story progresses and we see the villains heading our way, these comic scenes become weighted with looming dread. At some point we know Billy has to grow up, and fast, because he's woefully unprepared for what's coming. That gives a sense of genuine peril in the action scenes, solving the problem of how you bring vulnerability to a protagonist armed with godlike powers.

Meanwhile, DC has mercifully moved away from boring CGI monsters, turning to a man with a long history of playing bad guys. The reliably steely Mark Strong plays Dr. Thaddeus Sivana as a proper comic book villain, complete with flamboyant coat and big speeches and light-up eye. But Sivana has a backstory that's as fleshed-out as Billy Batson's, if not more. I actually found myself genuinely sympathizing with Sivana, who shares an intriguing bond with Billy. Though I wasn't rooting for Sivana, I was genuinely conflicted as the final showdown approached -- when the film builds to its climax, it's great to see a story lean toward saving the villain from himself rather than smashing and destroying him with self-righteous might.

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Both the heroes and the villains have compelling and sympathetic backstories.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The character of Shazam is one of the oldest in comics , going back almost as far as Superman. Until a copyright dispute with rival comic company Marvel , he was called Captain Marvel. Wild, huh? You wait decades for a Captain Marvel movie and then two come along at once. Comparisons are inevitable between DC's Shazam and Marvel's  Captain Marvel , which is still doing great business in theaters.

But we can leave that debate to the die-hard fans, because all you need to know is that both movies are great.

Captain Marvel is perhaps the more culturally important film, but Shazam might edge it as a more entertaining standalone movie. Marvel's film packs a punch with its compelling characters and deft twists, but it's pretty bland in terms of action. Shazam, meanwhile, might not have as much emotional impact, but it's stuffed with standout set pieces and endlessly quotable gags.

DC has definitely learned a lesson from Marvel about balancing lightness with darkness. If anything, the roles have reversed slightly -- Shazam is colorful fun, while Captain Marvel sometimes takes itself too seriously. But Shazam is no Marvel clone, owing as much to classic family adventures like Big or The Goonies as it does to the Avengers.

That's quite a magic trick.

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Originally published March 23, 2019.