At some point in every kid’s life they have probably spent an inordinate amount of time dreaming about what it would be like to be a superhero. Shazam!, the latest in DC Comic’s cinematic universe, is the first of the genre to directly tap into that childhood wish fulfillment as it reimagines Big as a superhero movie, thus delivering what is easily the most lighthearted and fun installment of the franchise.
With his lightning-emblazoned bright red suit, outlandish white cape, goofy catch-phrase (he has to yell “Shazam” to activate his powers), and a backstory that includes wizards and magic, Shazam ranks among the sillier and more obscure superheroes put to screen. As such the movie is forced to go down the well-worn and tired path of being yet another origin story to introduce him to new audiences. Fortunately what makes the movie feel like a breath of fresh air is that director David F. Sandberg borrows heavily from the playbook of 80s children’s movies like the aforementioned Big or standard Spielbergian fare like The Goonies or Gremlins to make this character, created in the 1930s, relevant in 2019.
After a long and ominous opening we are introduced to our hero Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a runaway 14-year old kid who has been bounced around the foster care system. His latest foster family is a blended family of warm and loving foster children who are more than eager to welcome Billy in, even as he predictably chafes at their affection. Only his new roommate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a wisecracking and fast-talking kid with a deep love for superheroes, manages to break down Billy’s defenses.
It is when Billy half-heartedly defends Freddy against some stereotypical school bullies that he is summoned by an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who bestows upon Billy the power of Shazam, turning the insecure 14-year old into a big, hulking, fully-grown superhero (Zachary Levi). It is at this point that the movie finally clicks into place and shakes most of its superhero trappings to turn into an irreverently fun hang-out movie. Though he appears to be an adult, Shazam is very much still a teenager and together with an understandably stoked Freddy he gets into a world of mischief as he explores and exploits his powers. Eschewing the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”, Billy and Freddy instead revel in juvenile joy as they use Shazam’s powers as an excuse for several elaborate pranks, dares, and, since this is the 21st century, as an excuse to become social-media influencers. And in this role Zachary Levi is perfect, portraying childlike goofiness with such natural ease that it is equal parts exhilarating and irritating; you can’t help but smile even as internally you wish he would grow up.
Since this is a superhero origin story, that chance to grow up comes swiftly with the end of Billy’s long journey to reconnect with his mother and the arrival of the nefarious glowing-eyed villain Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who possesses in him the monstrous embodiment of the Seven Sins. And while Dr. Sivana does stand out as a compelling exception to a field of largely forgettable superhero-movie villains, his journey is one of the chief complaints I have with this movie. Much to the chagrin of the mother sitting next to me in the theatre who had brought her children on the promise that this was a kids superhero movie, Dr. Sivana’s villainous arc contains some of the most terrifying moments I have ever experienced in a superhero movie (a boardroom scene in particular was especially shocking in its violently scary content). While I am all for movies targeted for children allowing for some element of danger and horror (like the great 80s kids movies The Goonies, Gremlins, and Labyrinth or more recent fare like Coraline) it was a bit of a shame that a movie that was primarily marketed as (and primarily is) a lighthearted superhero comedy had so much tonal whiplash.
It is also at the point when Shazam and Sivana start to lock horns that the movie slowly dovetails into the ground-down grooves of the genre’s trappings gradually becoming less interesting. The final act of this movie is a predictable mish-mash of CGI-filled action and life lessons learned with only one genuine surprise to jolt the viewer into caring but at least in this regard Shazam! is far from alone. It is also in the final act that it becomes apparent that this movie, at a ridiculous 132 minutes, is too long. Between the exposition-heavy opening of the movie and the bloated final action scene, it is apparent that the movie could lose about 10% of its running time and be all the better for it.
For a good chunk Shazam! proves to be the perfect antidote for a superhero genre that in recent years has too often been burdened by its own parodic self-seriousness. It bears less in likeness to its universe-sharing and dour Man of Steel but rather resembles its earlier incarnation in Christopher Reeve’s Superman and is all the better for it. But ultimately it is hard to get too pumped about Shazam! and it is hardly the fault of the movie alone. As I gear up for yet another superhero event movie in Avengers: Endgame in a couple of weeks it is becoming increasingly clear that what ails the genre is overexposure. No matter how inventively presented, the umpteenth superhero origin story simply isn’t going to excite anymore and the thought of superheroes living amongst us no longer inspires wonder. No matter how destructive, the CGI-playgrounds that these movies construct for their super-powered people to brawl in are increasingly going to seem blasé. Shazam! is at least fun, light-hearted, and likeable like its star Zachary Levi, but it remains to be seen if there is anything in the movie that will ultimately endure.
Runtime: 132 minutes.
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Written by Henry Gayden
Starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou, Faithe Herman, Meagan Good, Grace Fulton, Michelle Borth, Ian Chen, Ross Butler, Jovan Armand, D. J. Cotrona, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews.