In order to have a reputation as a more fleshed-out film studio, DC Comics doesn’t just need the likes of . It also needs films like —one-off morsels that are free from the weight of a connected universe, that can unabashedly walk the same ground as the best ’80s kids-action films, that let us laugh with an infusion of Spielberg-ian heart.
is in no position to “redeem” DC Comics’ reputation in comparison to Marvel Studios’ fare, and it succeeds the most by wearing that fact on its giddy-teen sleeve. Of course, Marvel comparisons are inevitable, so I’ll start with one: the resulting film lands somewhere between the first and second Ant-Man films. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s fine. can easily be criticized for issues and lapses, but its worst issues are nitpicks, not damning reasons to steer clear.
We have a apologist here
I was particularly charmed by the solid cast of kids and teens. If shameless mining of the ’80s well that brought us , , and brings us more talented young actors having fun and kicking butt with magical powers while learning valuable friendship lessons, then, sure. I for one don’t really tire of that formula. (Gosh, I still like , which was already an unnecessary rip-off when it came out 30 years ago.)
There’s more plot than that going on in —about a wizard defending an ancient temple from seven beasts who represent the deadly sins, and an evil force releasing said sins, and a brooding kid somehow hooking up with said wizard to claim his powers in the nick of time—but none of that would matter if we didn’t like the kid actors who dominate this film.
Teen protagonist Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) and his accidental best bud Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) unite on opposite ends of the outcast spectrum, and it’s a good pairing. The film establishes Billy’s petty-crime streak and emotional reluctance, then introduces Freddy’s damaged enthusiasm. Their friendship isn’t automatic by any stretch, so is mindful of that, letting each character tiptoe into niceness before teen Billy’s transformation into an unwitting, grown-up superhero (played by Zachary Levi). At this point, each eggs the other on as they becoming friendly jokesters, only to poke each other’s insecurities when they each see the whole superhero thing going in different ways than the other expected.
Meaning: the duo has its share of one-liners, including some delightfully -esque reactions. But buying into their friendship and watching it evolve is what elevates beyond its best jokes (a few of which were already spoiled by trailers). This quality, by the way, makes easy to watch if you know bupkis about its comic book history.
Zachary Levi also counts as a likable kid actor in this film, seeing as he’s doing the whole Tom Hanks thing (a fact that the film acknowledges in one laugh-out-loud moment). The biggest problem I have with his performance, however, is that he’s playing a teenager than Billy’s character. The actual teen has gone through legitimate trauma and is equal parts hardened and wimpy, as appropriate. Levi’s take never reflects this crucial emotional content, and in many scenes, that makes sense—Levi’s the one with the cape and the bullet-proof skin.
This acting disconnect doesn’t sink the film by any stretch. Levi gets some much deserved laughs in doing the ol’ Hollywood grown-up-kid switcheroo. But it’s a clear example of Levi taking on a legitimately tougher role than ‘s Hanks—of balancing a teen character’s pained backstory with the Red Bull sugar-rush of flight and lightning bolts—and thus paling in comparison.
One bad adult doesn’t spoil the teen bunch
The rest of the kid cast comes in the form of Billy’s ragtag foster family, led by a precocious, enthusiastic little sister (Faithe Herman) who earns all of her laughs and “aww”s without straying into Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen territory. She’s rounded out by a sensible older sister (played by Grace Fulton, doing a nice Linda Cardellini imitation) and a tech-addicted little brother (Ian Chen).
When finally gets around to having all of its kids team up for a big moment, the effect is palpable enough to leapfrog over the same gimmick from . This group of kids learns to become a family over the course of the film, and that milestone comes with good-natured jokes and weirdness, not the brutality of ‘ kids picking on Chunk.
Sadly, the film severely lacks an appreciably oddball or memorable villain. Instead, we get Thaddeus Sivana (played by Mark Strong), a long-scorned researcher who obsesses over avenging his father and brother. His leap into pure evil is as one-dimensional as a Scooby-Doo villain’s, but Strong isn’t the right actor to take this character anywhere campy or wild, and he’s not helped by a script that basically guides him into being the example of how Billy have turned out, in terms of his own family issues.
Sivana’s descent into supervillainy isn’t helped by a few gaping logic holes. First, a helpful wizard chews out Sivana’s childhood self within the first 10 minutes for seemingly no useful reason. Next, an older Sivana dumps years and millions of dollars into a research project only to astound his colleagues when he reveals that it’s been a study of secret, supernatural forces all along.
Sneaky stuff for 10-year-olds
Even so, the end result is a superhero film that leans brazenly into an Indiana Jones vibe (complete with a John Williams-caliber score) along with a healthy dollop of -for-kids gags about the wider DC Comics universe. is the kind of family-friendly movie that feels like it’s made for older teens—something a 10-year-old could watch and feel like they’re being sneaky—without leaving older fans bored.
And in spite of some lapses and foibles, crucially weaves two threads in one fabric: the emotional weight of its core teens, and a neatly paced streak of sweet and sarcastic laughs. I still ultimately think the Marvel universe has better entries in this camp (particularly the last two Spider-Man films), but that’s no reason to avoid DC’s successful stab at this superhero .