It’s no secret that the DCEU has been on a bit of an extended rebuilding year/apology tour since the made-by-commitee disaster that was the Justice League. Wonder Woman and Aquaman have sure been a step-up in terms of quality and financial success; however, neither have been as embraced by critics and audiences quite like the competition down the street in Marvel Studios.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type of guy to say, “Marvel Rules and DC drools!” or vice versa – I just want to see a good superhero movie. And there’s no denying which cinematic universe has more creative innovation and which universe has just started slinging random ideas at the wall to see what sticks. To Warner Bros./DC’s credit, they’ve started improving in their consistency. They’re establishing solid characters, but the movies aren’t always as solid. Wonder Woman’s last act was derivative. Aquaman had barely any actual character arc for the title character. Both had bland villains. So, does Shazam make any progress here? Do they actually give their character the support they deserve? Sadly, that is not the case. The issues above are very much in place here.
For the uninitiated, Shazam! follows Billy Batson, a 14 year old foster kid, bouncing from house to house while in search of his mother. After standing up for a foster-brother at school, Billy is endowed with powers (and a new buff super-body) by a magical being, Shazam! What he doesn’t know is that someone else feels he’s owed those abilities…DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN! (End of synopsis)
So, is Shazam! a home run? No, but the movie is not at all a total loss. Like the other recent DCEU solo adventures, while there’s quite a bit to pick apart, there’s still a decent amount to like. In this case, even more than Jason Momoa in Aquaman, Shazam’s star, Zachary Levi (Chuck, Thor: The Dark World) absolutely carries the film on his shoulders with charisma and charm to spare. The lead-up to his introduction is extremely tedious and, like much of the movie overall, filled with rehashed origin story bits we’ve seen before in better movies. Then, like a literal bolt of lightning, Levi makes his first appearance on the screen, the film explodes with energy, hilarity, and starts to run on all cylinders.
From here, Shazam/Billy and his foster brother sidekick, Freddie Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer (IT, Beautiful Boy), get to have a little fun with his newly discovered superpowers. As you’ve likely seen in the trailers, this provides a lot of fun. Sadly, outside of this and some playful bits with the other foster family stand-out, Darla Dudley, there’s not many other moments that really pop…well, there’s a piece that I won’t spoil towards the end.
Mark Strong is doing his best to make the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana something other than a mustache twisting villain. They give his character proper motivations and give him room to breathe, but, in the end, he feels more like a villain out of a 90’s superhero film.
My biggest gripes with Shazam! are that it does nothing to make the well-worn territory that is the superhero origin story feel fresh. Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) spends most of his time sticking to the formula we’ve seen dozens of times or he’s blatantly ripping off other movies that have come before – and rarely in a “fun homage” kind of way.
There’s also some massive gaps in logic when it comes to Billy’s origin, characters knowing things that haven’t been explained to them, and, much like Aquaman, general laws of physics. Then there’s the lack of any real stakes. There was absolutely no point in the movie where I felt like any main character was in actual danger.
Even with all of this, the movie’s biggest sin is not knowing its audience – it’s built too much like a kids movie for adults to fully enjoy, and, at multiple points, is far to scary for kids. I’ve heard people compare it to the Amblin movies of the 80’s, but those weren’t ever as gruesome as some parts of Shazam! are. I suppose that’s what you get when you hire a so-so horror director to direct a superhero movie.
And yet, despite all of its faults, Shazam! still isn’t the worst thing you could do on a Friday night at the movies. Like Aquaman and Wonder Woman, it establishes likable characters an audience can follow into multiple possible sequels. Now it just needs to give these characters better, more inventive films. In the end, Shazam! is certainly more coherent than Suicide Squad and features far more laughs than the other Snyder-era DCEU films. It’s basically the DCEU’s version of Ant-Man, in that there’s a lot wrong with it, but it’s got enough entertainment value to warrant a viewing or two….and thank THOR (in more ways than one) for Zachary Levi!