WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Shazam!, in theaters now.
From the outset, Shazam! has distinguished itself from the other movies in the so-called DC Extended Universe as the lightest, most comedic and kid-friendly entry in the Warner Bros. franchise. It's a funny, optimistic film the whole family can enjoy; it's PG-13, but the sort that would be a PG in the 1980s. It's so different that it's difficult to conceive it really takes place in the same cinematic universe as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
However, despite being such a far cry from Zack Snyder's original "dark-and-edgy" vision for DC movies, Shazam! deals in some impressively serious subject matter. Not only that, but because it approaches those issues without nihilistic pretense, and because the lighter, comedic elements add to its relatability, the darker aspects hit harder than previous DCEU films.
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To be clear, we respect that much of the darkness in Snyder's worldview comes from a genuine place. There are choices you can argue about with his cinematic adaptation of Watchmen, but it's able to get at bleak, emotional truths because its antiheroes have clear, understandable psychologies.
Yet for whatever combination of reasons, the attitude of Snyder's DCEU felt far less "serious exploration of dark themes" and more "sheltered 14-year-old boy's vision of what 'darkness' looks like." The result was films that featured hyper-violent "heroes" and some gestures toward weighty themes, but ultimately came off as immature. Snyder's recent defenses of Batman v Superman certainly don't help to make the film's perspective seem any more mature.
Shazam! is literally about a 14-year-old, but its vision of the world's darkness comes with mature insight and impact. From the opening scene, we see how the film's fantasy intersects with harsh reality. The young Thaddeus Sivana is given a magical chance to escape his abusive family, only to have the opportunity ripped away through no real fault of his own (yes, he fails the "pure of heart" test, but everyone does). Oh, and when he tries to explain what happened, he's blamed for the car crash that permanently disables his father. The movie has barely begun and we already have a sympathetic portrait of how the world's injustices can break a person.
Billy Batson's story is all the more powerful because it shows someone striving to be a better person, even while seemingly all the world's injustices are coming down on him. He's run away from every foster home he's been placed so he can continue a desperate search for his mother. Before his current home, all of his foster families refused to take him back in after he ran away. His nerdy, disabled foster brother Freddy is ruthlessly bullied, while his foster sister Mary takes on such heavy responsibility over her younger siblings that, emotionally, she can't even handle a college acceptance letter.
Oh, and then it turns out Billy's mother actually found him when he got lost as a child, but chose to abandon him because she felt like she couldn't be a good parent. That's darker than anything in any superhero movie since Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.
The mostly realistic style of Shazam!'s filmmaking helps to sell the dark moments exceptionally well. The poverty and grit of its working-class Philadelphia setting is presented as a matter of fact, neither cleaned up nor fetishized. Wonder Woman, the best DCEU film before Shazam!, certainly contains dark subject matter in regard to World War I, but it's so stylized that it's fantasy.
In Shazam!, bright fantasy collides with harsh reality, just as its wacky humor and action melds with visceral emotion. Rather than canceling each other out, going to such wide emotional extremes only enhances both sides of the movie.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Shazam! stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, Zachary Levi as Shazam, Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, Djimon Hounsou as the ancient wizard Shazam, Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield, Jack Dylan Grazer as Frederick “Freddy” Freeman, Ian Chen as Eugene Choi, Jovan Armand as Pedro Peña, Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley, Cooper Andrews as Victor Vásquez and Marta Milans as Rosa Vásquez. The film is in theaters now.