At its best when it’s getting goofy, this all-ages DC superhero effort just can’t maintain its spark.
Zachery Levi in Shazam!.
After more than a decade of big-screen superhero saturation, moviegoers have certainly learned that caped crusaders are people too. Spandex-wearing crime fighters are brooding billionaires who’ve lost their parents in dark alleys, dorky teens taking on great power and great responsibilities, scrappy underdogs determined to stand up for everyone they can and mutated loners with anger issues – and even when they’re not strictly human, they struggle with loss, life and love just like everyone else. But what if superheroes weren’t just people? What if kids were superheroes? That’s the real dream that the genre has long peddled, not only letting the young and young-at-heart hope to be saved from their routine lives, but allowing them to imagine that they can be someone not-so-ordinary as well.
In Shazam!’s case, that dream comes true in the most literal sense for foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel, TV’s Andi Mack). All it takes is a dying ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Captain Marvel) in desperate need of a successor who’s pure of heart. Much to his surprise, the Philadelphia teen fits the bill, all because he stands up for his disabled foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, Beautiful Boy) against school bullies. While the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, Deep State) and the ghoulish Seven Deadly Sins are soon on his trail, the new, improved Billy is more concerned with exactly what a child who suddenly becomes a superhero would be concerned with: looking like an adult (as played by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Zachary Levi), toying with his new powers, showing off, impressing girls, buying alcohol and heading to a strip club.
With a walking piano gag to prove it, Shazam! is the Big of the DC Extended Universe. Thrusting a group of children (including fellow foster kids played by Annabelle: Creation’s Grace Fulton, This Is Us’ Faithe Herman, Fresh Off the Boat’s Ian Chen and The Middle’s Jovan Armand) on an unlikely adventure, it’s The Goonies of the Marvel rival’s film realm, too. And, spending much of its time watching Shazam! and Freddy ditch school to road test the former’s freshly enhanced skills, it’s the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off of the franchise as well – but the movie’s sizeable ambitions and obvious desire to add something new to the DC fold aren’t the saviours that Shazam! clearly hopes.
As fun and refreshing as the film’s core concept, key scenes and looser, goofier vibe all are, they come with ample packaging. Unlike turning the adolescent Angel into the beefed-up Levi – both of whom charm in their roles – Shazam!’s added parts are all-too-ordinary. Parental issues rear their heads for Billy, his fellow foster kids and Sivana, managing to remain routine even when they’re backed up by genuine emotion. The related thematic threads about family, friendship and wanting to belong are similarly instantly familiar, and stay that way in Henry Gayden’s (Earth to Echo) screenplay. While Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation director David F. Sandberg has a strong feel for the movie’s creepier elements (and for aping more ‘80s fare, such as Ghostbusters), his action battles fall flat, including the big climax. And though one late development springs directly from the source material, it proves awkward in a DC slate that has already struggled with the concept of superhero teams (see: Justice League and Suicide Squad).
As a result, Shazam! feels like one movie stuck inside another – an earnest, enthusiastic attempt to break out that just can’t smash its heavy mould or completely fill its 132-minute running time. It also feels like the latest evidence of a studio flinging as many superhero flicks at audiences as it can to see which mood and tone brings the most success. Six years on from DCEU first entry Man of Steel, the latter doesn’t merely apply overall, but within Shazam!’s assemblage of disparate components. This tale is neither as powerfully involving as Wonder Woman nor as gleefully ridiculous as Aquaman, although it aims for both. Thankfully, it’s never as bland as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice either. Still, with its fleeting joys and forgettable nods to formula, Shazam! just can’t maintain its likeable, lightning-wielding hero’s vibrant, energetic spark.
3 stars ★★★
Director: David F. Sandberg
US, 2019, 132 mins
Release date: April 4