I enjoyed “Shazam!” and applaud how adept the director, David F. Sandberg, and the screenwriter, Henry Gayden, are at constructing an entertaining superhero film. However, I was disappointed in some of the actors’ performances in the movie. Nevertheless, perhaps I am too critical of the new blockbuster from DC Comics. After all, DC made another decent movie after a hit-or-miss record that has been more miss than hit.
“Shazam!” is unquestionably the best movie DC has produced since “Wonder Woman,” but that isn’t saying much when you consider that the movies that followed the Amazonian princess’ were “Justice League” and “Aquaman.”
Both filmmakers of those movies had good intentions when they were making their respective Saturday morning cartoon action epics, but their execution was problematic. Neither film had heart, and the screenwriters failed to write compelling dialogue for the actors beyond the incoherent expositional babble and cringe-inducing “jokes.”
Conversely, Sandberg and Gayden created a film that has the same cartoonish tone of “Justice League” and “Aquaman,” but they injected their movie with heart and humor that works. Two standout scenes in “Shazam!” exemplify these emotions.
In the scene that best shows how heartfelt the film is, the protagonist, Billy Batson, discovers something shocking about his biological mom. I won’t spoil that discovery, but I will tell you that it fundamentally alters Billy. While this is a profound and compelling scene, it is not entirely where the heart of the film lies. Instead, that is seen in how Billy reacts to this realization about his mother. Often in a movie more is revealed about characters when we see how they respond to a deeply felt situation rather than the situation alone.
In this emotional scene, we learn a lot about what motivates Billy and how he will notably change. Gayden writes a few scenes similar to this one, but they don’t carry the same emotional punch to the gut. Regardless, I applaud his effort. Hayden also knows how to land a joke most of the time, and luckily, the actors saying the quips are up to the challenge.
Actors Zachary Levi, who plays the superhero version of Billy known as Shazam (I know it’s confusing), and Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Billy’s DC know-it-all foster brother, steal the movie.
Levi is charming and hysterical in the film especially when Billy discovers his new powers and acts cocky around the lowly criminals he thwarts and citizens he protects. He even uses this new superhero smugness to flirt with women twice his age unsubtly. “Oh, hey, wassup? I’m a superhero.” This self-righteous characterization is an exciting contrast to the tortured heroes DC has recently produced films for. I hope Shazam does eventually encounter some of these heroes because I think that comparison could be mined for comedy gold.
As the film progresses, Levi and the screenplay shift away from the overly cocky charm, and Levi shows impressive range. In later scenes, Billy is forced to acknowledge his ambitious attitude and admit that he may be in over his head. These human moments ground the character, and the actor nails both sides of this complex hero.
Grazer, on the other hand, portrays a character who is both sarcastic and witty but also logical, so he perfectly counters Billy’s initial big-headedness. Grazer showed he could be subservient and meek in “IT,” but in “Shazam!” he shows that he can play characters that are confident and level-headed. He certainly holds his own with the other young actors who play his foster siblings, but he especially shows his strength as an actor when acting opposite Levi.
Many are also applauding Mark Strong’s work as Dr. Sivana. I wanted to love Strong’s performance, but it didn’t do much for me. I’ve seen him in many villain roles over the years, and I’m over him as the bad guy. I could have handled seeing him as one last bad guy, Sinestro, in a proper “Green Lantern” sequel, but that wasn’t meant to be. As Sivana, Strong is unremarkable. He doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong, but his performance isn’t a game-changer like Heath Ledger’s Joker or Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger.
That said, Strong wasn’t the worst performance in the movie. That dishonor goes to Asher Angel. In the heartfelt and emotionally captivating moments, he had me, but it’s hard to believe that this kid becomes a happy-go-lucky, overconfident superhero who looks and sounds like Zachary Levi. Angel’s performance is nothing like Levi’s, and that is where the movie falls flat. Angel isn’t a strong match with Levi or Grazer. He’s dull, angsty, and relatively no-nonsense.
Nevertheless, “Shazam!” is a fun film that is mostly elevated by the performances by Levi and Grazer and Gayden’s screenplay. DC Comics hasn’t perfected its formula yet, but it looks like it is headed in the right direction, and, as cheesy as it might sound, that is super.