Who knew “Shazam!” would be the better Captain Marvel movie?
Now that I’ve gotten that trademark joke out of the way — because let’s face it, a lot of us grew up with the Big Red Cheese being called Captain Marvel — we can focus on how Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are on an impressive winning streak with their solo superhero movies.
“Wonder Woman” was the first hit of the “Justice League” era. “Aquaman” was the billion-dollar splash that made us forget all the Warner Bros.-DC drama of trying to catch up to the success of Marvel Studios.
Now “Shazam!” — the story of Billy Batson, an orphaned boy who says a magic word, is struck by lightning and becomes an adult superhero and the world’s mightiest mortal — is the movie that will have you saying, “Why couldn’t DC have done it like this from the start?”
Warner Bros. forcing Zack Snyder to rush and build a connected universe toward a “Justice League” film did major brand damage to DC, but it seems they’ve finally figured out this whole superhero-movies-without-Christopher-Nolan-thing. Give talented directors beloved superhero icons without the pressure of building toward a super team-up and let fantastic comic book tales serve as source material. Then watch the magic happen.
That’s how David Sandberg, a director mostly known for horror, has delivered the most fun DC movie of all time, which arrives in theaters April 5.
“Shazam!,” like Aquaman, leans heavily on the works of a comic book scribe and former president of DC Entertainment, Geoff Johns. It uses a little-known story, which until recently wasn’t even its own graphic novel, as its source material. The film is inspired by an origin tale by Johns and Gary Frank, which appeared as the backstory in issues of “Justice League” during DC Comics’ New 52 publishing phase.
That turns out to be a wise choice, as that comic is the most modern take on Billy Batson. After all, there are only so many times you can get away with saying “holy moley” — although “Shazam!” makes that work, too.
With a strong storytelling foundation in place, Sandberg gets to watch the talent he’s assembled work their magic. Asher Angel puts heartbreak and grit into the role of 14-year-old Billy, a kid who carries the burden of abandonment and struggles to warm up to the concept of family once he’s adopted.
An ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) bestows upon Billy the power of Shazam, an acronym for the gods from which he receives his power. When he yells “Shazam!,” Billy gets the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. All that power turns Billy into an adult demigod, but he’s still a kid on the inside.
Lightning strikes, and boom: Angel becomes Zachary Levi — who, despite going on a Henry Cavill-worthy workout binge to get ready for his first superhero role, was given a padded-muscle suit to help accentuate the OMG-factor of portraying a kid inside a superhero’s body.
Levi, with a cool hooded cape and lightning powers, is believable as an indestructible kid. Executing the immaturity such a situation breeds perfectly, he comes off like an anti-DC hero. There’s no teeth gritting and screaming “Martha.” Instead, he’s consistently giving off an attitude that says: “Dude, did you just see that?”
Levi deserves a spot next to actors who’ve recently gotten it right for DC. Put him right up there with Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa — all of a sudden, DC doesn’t need Batman and Superman.
Mark Strong, who was spectacular as Sinestro in the otherwise dreadful “Green Lantern,” finally gets to sink his teeth into the role of a fully formed DC villain. As Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, he’s broken bad as someone obsessed with proving magic is real. He sees the destruction of Shazam as the best way to get what he wants.
Sandberg uses Strong’s intimidating presence to put his horror directing skills to good use. Children should love “Shazam!,” but they might have to cover their eyes a few times, especially when the source of Dr. Sivana’s powers is revealed.
Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Billy’s adoptive brother Freddy Freeman, steals the show. And if you read the comics, you know Freddy is a big deal.
The most iconic image of Shazam comes from the classic ’90s DC Comics miniseries, “Kingdom Come,” written by Mark Waid and brilliantly illustrated by Alex Ross. An older/tired of it all Superman is flying at top speed to stop world destruction. Out of nowhere, something knocks him to the ground. Superman looks up and sees Shazam (he was Captain Marvel back then) hovering over him — looking like superhero perfection.
Shazam was brainwashed, which is why he was attacking Superman (don’t worry, he snaps out of it), but the image served as a reminder not to confuse your DC legends. Yes, there’s the trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but the captain is just as powerful and just as deserving of your adulation.