The farther away WB/DC gets from whatever it was doing when it released Justice League, the better their prospects for having a robust library of good, successful, comic book movies. Before this weekend, there had been five movies in the DCEU. Man of Steel was a misguided start to the universe. The casting was stellar and visually the movie worked, but the story they wanted to tell—while admirable—didn’t connect with audiences. DC (read: Snyder) wanted a grounded take on Superman, one which explored how the world around him would naturally react to the sudden appearance of an alien who looks very much like us but who possesses godlike powers.
Batman v Superman doubled down on that wrongheaded concept, continuing the interesting trend of “second movies” by DC movie directors: Tim Burton was given more leeway to make Batman Returns a “Tim Burton” movie and ended up angering the all-important corporate tie-ins. Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin was so bad (after his Batman Forever was so mediocre) that he killed the franchise for a time. Chris Nolan is the great exception but even then, his second “Dark Knight” film (The Dark Knight Rises) is largely considered the weakest of the three Batman movies he made.
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel followup was even darker, even broodier, even angrier, even angstier, even more convoluted. It was not well received and time has been even more unfavorable to it. While it didn’t destroy the DCEU, it did destroy the director’s ability to turn out an audience; Justice League was a box office bomb.
So let me start over: The farther away WB/DC gets from Zack Snyder, the better their prospects for having a robust library of good, successful, comic book movies.
Wonder Woman was very very good. It wasn’t perfect, but its first act was solid, its second was spectacular, and its third was okay. Overall it made for a really good movie that, compared to the others in the DCEU at the time, made it seem nearly perfect. Full review here…
And then Aquaman went and blew everyone’s expectations away simply by being a movie that was good. It was more than that, actually, it was great. In fact, it’s the first DCEU film that I liked more the second and third time. I gave Batman v Superman an 8/10 for crying out loud. That movie deserves a 6, looking back on it. I gave Justice League an 8 as well! Aquaman however has remained great. Full review here…
Now, releasing just a few months later, we have the next DCEU movie, the second since Zack Snyder ended his direct-oversight of the universe. Does Shazam! keep the momentum going? It promises the lightest tone of any DC movie since…the Schumacher-Batman movies. That’s not a comparison you want to have. Does the movie work or does come across as “embarrassing” instead of “fun”?
I’m relieved to say: It works! It’s not perfect, it’s similar to Wonder Woman in that it has key flaws that hold it back, but it’s really good, maybe even great.
Full spoilery review below…
Seven thoughts, in no particular order…
1. The costume is perfect. One thing the DCEU has gotten mostly right across the board is with the hero suits. I think Superman needs a bigger S and a little more red here and there, but it’s really good. Batman’s first suit (in Batman v Superman) was flawless. Wonder Woman = flawless. Aquaman’s climactic green and gold = great. These look like the comics come to life. Marvel showed the way and Shazam! nails it too.
2. The casting is perfect. Zachary Levi was probably not the person people imagined when the movie was announced, but he looks the part* and more importantly, he plays the part exactly as he should. He’s a teenager thrust into adulthood and given godlike powers. Of course he’s going to ham it up for the first half of the movie. The rest of the cast handled their roles well too but the movie lives or dies by the hero and the hero was spot-on.
He *really looks the part. Here is Zachary Levi alongside Fred MacMurray, the 1930’s actor the artist based the character on…
3. It sticks the landing! Too many of the movies in the DCEU library have weak or just plan bad third acts. Man of Steel devolved into a flying punch fight with no weight or depth. Batman v Superman ended with a monster mash against a villain with no motivation or characterization. Justice League was a video game. Even Wonder Woman dropped the ball in the final stretch, with a CGI-heavy god vs god fight that felt hollow. Aquaman however, was great from beginning to end and now Shazam! joins the party: This is a movie that has a third act that felt connected to the story, resolved some plot points, kept the spirit of the movie intact, and wrapped up neat and tidy. It’s easier said than done, but they did it.
4. The humor worked. It’s so easy to get humor wrong in movies like this. You don’t want to come off as pandering or out of touch. You don’t want a good joke to fall flat because of bad actors, or for a running gag to happen at a wrong moment. It’s a balancing act and not every movie gets it. Even a great movie like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 struggled with its humor. Here, the jokes almost all worked. Because it did, the movie maintained an upbeat vibe that kept things fun and light, even when the heavier stuff was going down. That’s the secret to Marvel’s movies and how they can have tons of laughs in between shocking and sad moments. DC’s learning.
5. The Dr. Sivana character was good but his Seven Deadly Buddies were underbaked. In the comics, the Seven Deadly Sins have style, color variations, personality. Here they are brownish gargoyle-like apparitions and most are indistinguishable. There’s the one that looks like The Exorcist demon, one has four arms, and one a big mouth. Apart from that…I know one has a long tongue but that might be one I’ve already mentioned. They’re just Power Ranger putties instead of the true Big Bad of the movie. I get putting Sivana front and center; he has a solid backstory and motivation, but his power is derived from those seven spirits; they needed more and were given less.
6. The subplot revolving around Billy’s mom needed minor revision. I appreciate the idea better than the execution. We’re supposed to believe that Billy was abandoned by his mother but he doesn’t know he’s abandoned. He thinks his mother can’t find him. He would tell the police that very thing, too. The police, the news, everyone would be making that boy famous trying to reconnect him with his mother. There’s no way she’d just continue living in the same city as him and not become famous within days. All that needed to be done was for the social worker to break the news to him that his mother went to the authorities soon after he went “missing” and formally gave him up for adoption. Instead, the social worker just hints at it. Again, I get it: You want the big gut punch scene when he sees his mom and she blows him off, but it was a powerful scene at the expense of logic.
7. Dude needs a name. It’s a running gag throughout the movie that the hero has yet to settle on or find an acceptable name. Of course, his name ought to be Captain Marvel. That was his name in 1939 and there was no problem with it up until 1967 when Marvel’s version of Captain Marvel debuted. The whole story involving the name is a long one but suffice to say: Marvel came later but Marvel is more popular now so Marvel wins (there’s also legal stuff that’s not worth getting into here). It doesn’t matter: The point is, when someone mentions Captain Marvel, they will think of this:
The hero in this movie is nameless. You might think to call him Shazam! and they may end up settling on that but it’s a name the hero himself can’t utter without transforming. Kind of weird for a hero to be unable to speak his own name, but maybe they’ll make that a running joke in the sequel the way his many (purposefully terrible) names were a running gag here.
9/10 – Shazam! works because it has too much fun not to. It’s infectiously happy and determined to charm you. It’s not perfect and some of its mistakes are frustrating, but never for long; you’ll enjoy yourself too much to let its flaws bring you down.
Keep it up, DC.