Be honest: when you saw the first trailer for Shazam!, you probably thought DC was nuts. They can’t seem to get a Flash movie off the ground, and yet they’re making a movie about Shazam, i.e., the superhero who gains his powers by shouting, well, “Shazam”?!
But here we are, and between you and me, I’m really excited about this one. DC seemed to turn a page with the excellent Wonder Woman, and while Aquaman was more spectacle than substance, it was some pretty awesome spectacle buoyed by Jason Momoa’s charisma. And Shazam! looks like DC is lightening up, exchanging the grimdark of the Batman and Superman movies for something a bit goofier, and too good effect, if initial reviews are any indication.
Writing for Vox, Alex Abad-Santos calls Shazam! “an unapologetically buoyant triumph of a superhero movie” and compares and contrasts it with the grimness that can often pervade superhero movies, especially ones from DC. He writes:
Sandberg has found success in Shazam by shrugging off typically cumbersome grimness and ignoring a need to fuse together with other films for a future team-up epic — all that stuff that weighs down most superhero movies. Instead, for large parts of the movie, Shazam unfurls like a holiday movie spin on the genre. And in embracing earnest glee and heartfelt tenderness, Shazam allows us to fully appreciate the magical excitement and wonder that superheroes can supply.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky gives Shazam! a “B-” in his review and notes that the film “positions itself as a blast for a different past — directed not only at actual kids of a certain age, but also at the inner 10-year-olds of grown-up viewers raised on ’80s hits like Big (which gets an homage in a toy-store sequence) and Gremlins (from which it borrows a Christmastime setting).” He also makes an interesting comparison to both previous DC movies and the current MCU: “[I]f DC movies can’t offer the sweeping arcs and conflicts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they can at least be forgettably fun.”
Given that Shazam’s alter-ego, Billy Batson, is a young orphan, Germain Lussier makes special notice of the film’s emphasis on family, noting Shazam!‘s emphasis on “the power and importance of foster families.” Towards the end of his review, he writes: “Sure, it’s fun to watch Billy fly and shoot lightning out of his hands, but it’s even better to see him trying to find ordinary happiness. There’s a real humanity to the foster family aspect of the story and it ends up paying off with some big surprises and possibly even a few tears.”
Polygon’s Susana Polo is particularly effusive in her review, which starts off describing Shazam! as “pure comic book magic” and then concludes by calling it “the holy grail of superhero adaptations when it pulls off an engagingly staged, thrilling, and emotional climax.” She also notes that director Sandberg includes several post-credits scenes that hint at a larger world, assuming the film does well enough to merit a sequel or two.
However, not everyone is as taken with the movie. Todd Gilchrist argues that while superhero movies “should reflect the values and aspirations of children,” Shazam! is “unfocused, noisy and way, [and] way too chatty” and “its eagerness to explore the notion of family at the expense of real character development — and the seeming absence of adult guidance both on and off screen — delivers far too little in the way of true inspiration.” More:
In retrospect, I realize that so many of these complaints sound like an adult critiquing a children’s story, or simply failing to account for that imaginary child author’s perspective. But the problem is that the very real people who made this film were adults, and they failed to put their audience into that childlike point of view — be it to understand the ramshackle storytelling or just to identify with this poor lost kid unexpectedly gifted with the powers of a god.
However, Gilchrist’s views are very much in the minority: Shazam! currently enjoys a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, the film doesn’t arrive in theaters until April 5, so there’s plenty of time for that score to change (for better or worse) as more critics see the film. But the fact that so many critics love Shazam! already and use terms like “upbeat,” “buoyant and unpretentious,” “a joy,” and “charming” to describe it bodes well for its success.