'Shazam!': What the Critics Are Saying

Shazam!-Publicity Still 9-H 2019
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

DC and Warner Bros.' latest superhero outing is gleaning an overwhelmingly positive response from critics, who still have a few misgivings.

Following in the recent tradition of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, Warner Bros./DC's Shazam! promises to put a lighthearted spin on Billy Batson's superhero story. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi play Batson, a 14-year-old foster kid who acquires the power to transform into an adult do-gooder by shouting "Shazam!" If the trailers are any indication of how the adolescent reacts to his newfound abilities, underage beer will be bought and villains (including Mark Strong's Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) will be vanquished.

But does Shazam! successfully introduce moviegoers to Batson and his Big-like adventures? Critics are overwhelmingly suggesting yes, with a few misgivings about the film's ending and primary villain (Strong).

For The Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck noted that Shazam! showed DC had taken the criticism that its films had become too dark and serious to heart. "The most kid-friendly DC movie so far, Shazam! is thoroughly entertaining," he writes. "But much like its central character, a 14-year-old boy able to transform himself into a superhero by uttering the titular incantation, often the pic gives the impression of a kid playing in the adult leagues." Scheck also took pleasure from some of the film's more clever gags as Batson comes to terms with his new powers, such as Shazam looking for a superhero "lair" with a real-estate agent. The movie is destined to be appreciated by younger audiences, and those who are young at heart, he writes, "who should respond very enthusiastically not only to the broad comedy but also emotional components involving Billy's desperate desire to be reunited with his mother and his growing attachment to his newfound family."

Overall, however, the pic's action set pieces and increasingly complicated plot weigh the revelry down, he writes. "What should have been a fun, fast-paced 105 minutes or so is dragged out to a butt-numbing 132."

Though Vox's Alex Abad-Santos acknowledges that Shazam! is a lighter outing for the DC Universe, his praise for the film — of which he has a lot — comes from its treatment of children, family and life lessons. "At its heart, Shazam is about who we call family and how family reflects who we are," he writes.

Abad-Santos adds that instead of toning down the source material's silliness, Shazam! soars by fully embracing it, down to the amusing way that Batson transforms into the movie's titular hero, while physical feats are allowed to be "cartoonish," he says. Ultimately, "Shazam’s tale of orphans and wizardry is not perfect — Sivana is a stylish but ultimately forgettable menace — but it’s pretty close," Abad-Santos concludes.

In The Guardian, critic Benjamin Lee expressed that with Shazam!, DC finally targeted an audience and delivered to it: younger folks. "Buoyant and unpretentious, Shazam! aims low and mostly succeeds, a kid-friendly caper powered with enough energy to keep its target audience engaged with a fun central conceit that plays like a cross between Big and Superman," Lee writes. He also praises Levi for conveying "puppyish charm" in the title role.

Still, Lee says that successfully grasping a movie's audience is the "bare minimum" a director can do, and ultimately echoes other critics in disparaging the pic's finale that he argues "dull the intended emotional impact." Overall, "It’s a film in need of a tighter edit with a script in need of a sharper polish, an imperfect franchise-launcher that nonetheless represents significant progress for DC," he writes.

USA Today's Brian Truitt praised the movie's overall "warm-huge vibe," arguing that the DC outing's primary focus was to impart important lessons on family, rather than stage sick fight choreography. Truitt also praised Levi as a "pitch-perfect do-gooder." He adds, "There’s a youthful wonder and innocence he captures as the Frito-chomping man-child hero, and he has all of the facial expressions and flossing skills (the dancing kind rather than the dental) to convey the pure excitement of a boy learning he can pretty much do anything."

For Indiewire, David Ehrlich heralds Shazam! as "one of the most fun superhero movies ever made," while adding in the sardonic review that "that’s still a low bar to clear, but it’s worth celebrating all the same." Though the film has plenty of '90s period piece trappings, the critics notes that the movie's old-fashioned feel derives from the performances and Hollywood magic that produce a verisimilitudinous family, rather than "nostalgia porn." Particularly of note is the friendship between Batson and Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer): "Freddy has fantastic chemistry with Billy and his ultra-buff alter-ego alike, becoming a friend and a hilariously irresponsible mentor to them both as the film nails the anarchic excitement of two kids building a superhero from scratch," Ehrlich writes.

Ehrlich also praises the work of director David F. Sandberg, whose "coherent, tactile direction also harkens back to a time before every fantasy movie was pre-vizzed within an inch of its life" and even leaves emotional moments for the slam-bang finish.

Keith Phipps of The Verge praised the deeper message behind the film's fun, noting that Batson's powers don't actualize him as a character, necessarily. When the main character arrives at a promising new foster home, "He’s been searching for a home so long, he can’t recognize it when he sees it, with or without superpowers," Phipps writes. Though Phipps says Shazam! is a rare superhero movie to prove more "whimsical" as it progresses, a serious message still shines through: "The film suggests that wish fulfillment will only get people so far, and power alone can’t change what’s damaged inside," he writes.

For the Associated Press, Lindsey Bahr argued that Shazam! would delight even those who are sick of incessant superhero releases. "Don’t worry if you don’t happen to know anything about Shazam! or are convinced that you won’t care. I certainly didn’t," she writes, before praising the film's "smart writing" and "pitch-perfect casting." Of particular note, she said, is the movie's young cast, which is "astounding" and the film's approach to superhero tropes like training montages. Her misgivings about the pic primarily concern Strong's villain character, who is "woefully underwritten," and his henchmen the Seven Deadly Sins, which "take the form of unimaginative and indistinguishable CG gargoyles."

Overall, though, the good overwhelmed the bad for Bahr: "Shazam! is just a lightning bolt of unexpected joy that is certainly worth your time and money," she writes.

Shazam! releases April 5.