PLEASE NOTE: This review contains some mild spoilers for the final act of Shazam! in the last two paragraphs. I tried to be as vague as possible but I also wanted to celebrate one of the best aspects of the film. You have been warned.
The modern superhero film genre rarely evokes nostalgia. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been forging its own path through Hollywood ever since Iron Man was a hit, and the spark that ignited that blast was arguably Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Batman. Fast forward to today, and when Marvel isn’t putting small twists on their formula for one new superhero after another, they create sprawling event films full of elaborate plate-spinning. The point is, while modern superhero films can often feel derivative of each other, they almost never pay homage to the films that came before. And that’s where Shazam! stands out.
Shazam! feels like a superhero movie out of time, drawing from a strand of DNA that runs from early 2000s comic book adaptations like Spider-Man, Hellboy, and X-men, all the way back to the edgy kids films of the 80s. It’s wildly inconsistent, bouncing between slapstick comedy and surprisingly dark moments. It’s not afraid of showing a bunch of really terrible CG monsters. And most crucially, most of the drama, danger, and fun is focused in and around a group of kids, really hammering home the 80s coming-of-age vibe.
The end result is something that works rather well, even if it looks like a total mess on paper. The path from opening scene to the boy Billy Batson gaining his “Shazam!” powers is packed with what feels like nearly an hour of table setting. We get a villain origin story and a history lesson on a supernatural conflict in another dimension (involving the seven deadly sins and six immortal elders Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury) all before our protagonist is even introduced.
Somehow, the plot doesn’t collapse in on itself before getting to the heart of the film—orphan Billy Batson and his new foster family. Soon enough, Billy stumbles upon his new powers and elects the help of Freddy, one of the other foster kids. The two spend a light-hearted middle chunk of the film testing out Billy’s powers and getting into trouble. As any modern kids would do, they leverage their antics into a successful YouTube channel.
Eventually the big bad makes his appearance, several conflicts come into play, and Shazam! takes a meandering path to the home stretch. At 132 minutes, it’s as bloated as any other DC superhero film.
Thankfully, outside of some drawn out and drab fight scenes, this overly busy plot is paced rather well. You could probably make a more elegant version of Shazam!, but that messiness is part of the charm. A lot of time is spent between Billy, his foster family, classmates, and a hunt for his real mom. A leaner Shazam! would probably cut all of that, and be a much worse film for it.
Instead, Shazam! takes all this extra foundation and does something remarkable with it, blindsiding the audience with a message of inclusion before the big finale. Shazam! ultimately isn’t just about an able-bodied white boy saving the world, but about what happens when that boy decides to share his power with women, people of color, and the disabled. The result is something simultaneously beautiful and a whole lot of fun.
Oddly enough, for all its effective 80s nostalgia and corny, earnest, family-oriented storytelling, it was this wildly progressive moment that fully won me over. For as much as it mirrors an older time for comic book superhero movies, Shazam! manages to be more modern in its message than almost all of its competition.