Where so much of the superhero genre of films feels loaded with bathos in how films will undercut their own stakes and concepts with irreverent humour poking at the essential silliness and vapidity of their own construction, “Shazam!” feels more like the superhero films nearly two decades its junior; the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. Those films burst with heart, goofiness, and a complete commitment to their own stakes and construction. They – and “Shazam!” – invite laughter insofar as they don’t undercut themselves. Their comedy evolves out of their inherently light-hearted stories. They don’t pretend to great theatrics and world-ending drama and of wide cultural importance, instead they build up their own little worlds and characters and commit to them utterly. You can laugh with “Shazam!” or you can laugh at “Shazam!”, but nowhere does the film invite you to laugh at the film *with* the film, the way its bathos-leaden genre peers do today.
While its tone and approach recalls those 2000s Raimi films, in general the film has more commonality with 1980s films, whether the willingness to resist sanding off the edges of its story and instead actually inviting some darkness and proper scares in (not unlike “Gremlins”, with which it shares a Christmas setting, or the hospital scene in “Spider-Man 2” really) or the general lack of fear in having its kids act like actual kids (the pursuit of alcohol, the cursing, the natural vanity and egocentrism, etc.).The league of excited babbling child actors recalls films like “The Goonies”. The villains of the film (impressively hid by the marketing) call to mind monsters from “Ghostbusters”. The film outright references “Big”, a 1980s Tom Hanks film with which it shares its essential premise of a child character transforming into an adult one.
Said transformation is well realised, particularly through the character note that the younger Billy is more solemn and laid down with his woes, whereas the superheroic adult Billy feels empowered to let loose and act his (former) age. The character’s throughline of searching for his biological family carries right on through the third act, where other films of the genre might have descended into their all-encompassing action cacophony. There is some of that here, but a lot of it is smartly subverted by bringing things back to the foster family dynamic and character interactions.
The film feels proud in how it commits to its concept and characters, and the joy and heart that fills that approach feels infectious. Some clunky pacing and underwriting of characters aside, the film succeeds wildly on its own terms. Three and a half caterpillars, and an authentic bullet.