In Shazam, 14 year old Billy Batson is given magical powers by an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Suddenly, by saying “SHAZAM!”, he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) with super strength, super speed, and a whole lot of other powers. Billy is given these powers so that he can prevent the seven deadly sins from destroying the world. Naturally, teenager Billy has slightly different priorities, such as using his new powers and appearance to earn money, make killer YouTube videos, and buy beer.
Also on Billy’s to-do list: picking a great superhero name. Billy and his best friend try out a lot of options for Billy’s superhero throughout the film, like Captain Sparklefingers, Power Boy, the Red Cyclone, Mister Philadelphia, Maximum Voltage, and on and on. None stick. Captain Marvel is noticeably absent from the list, and the name problem is a nice nod to the real world legal issues that Shazam has faced since the 1940s, as the character has been enjoined, traded, discarded, renamed and reimagined numerous times since. As a bonus, Billy even says “Holy Moly” a couple of times in the film, which was comic Billy’s go-to but which no one else has said since about 1962.
Billy’s behaviour is schlocky and charming and works wonderfully for a superhero who has also been called The Big Red Cheese. But interspersed with the corny stuff is a really terrifying villain (Mark Strong), who has a glowing rock for an eye, calls upon demons to decapitate, dismember and destroy a whole boardroom of corporate suits, and watches with a smirk as a rival turns to ash. These tonal shifts are not just uneven, they are jarring, and more than that, the dark aspects of this film make me hesitant to recommend this film to my brother even though my seven year old nephew insists on being notified whenever the Shazam trailer comes on TV.
Still, DC has delivered its second good film since trying (and then aborting) its shared universe project (Wonder Woman is still the best by far and will be hard to beat). The problem for DC is that having now said that each movie is its own entity and there’s no bigger narrative, meaning there is no need for regular movie goers to seek them all out. So when a good one comes along, people will go see it, but when the next one’s mediocre, the masses can skip it without worrying that they’ll miss something. In my view, a big part of Marvel’s success is that each chapter might add something important, so I’d better see it even if I’m superheroed out that month. DC has now walked away from that which only increases the pressure for their movies to measure up, and that’s a questionable choice when DC has more misses than hits to this point.