A troubled and frequent runaway boy by the name of Billy Batson encounters an expiring ancient wizard who is the last of his kind. The wizard has personally chosen Billy, a child who is pure of heart, to inherit his superpowers, and to fulfill his destiny as the champion hero known as Shazam!
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Written by: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Djimon Hounsou
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Release date: April 5, 2019
Run-time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
With two consecutive hit films in Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the DC Extended Universe appeared to have finally found its footing after several early missteps. Their latest feature film, Shazam!, makes a decent effort but shows that things are still a little shaky. The movie focuses on a child-turned-adult superhero who inherits his superpowers from an expiring ancient wizard. As a boy, he’s a troubled and frequent runaway by the name of Billy Batson. As a man, he is to become the destined champion hero known as Shazam! Well… eventually. For now, he’s mostly called Captain Sparkle Fingers while he and his new best friend Freddy try to come up with a cooler name.
Early in the movie, Billy is sent to live with a new foster family; one that he plans on deserting at the first opportunity just as he’s done countless times before. He’s a scrappy, street smart kid who thinks he can take care of himself just fine. At least that is until he’s summoned by a dying wizard who magically transports him to his other-worldly location. The wizard tells him that he is the last of his kind, and he’s seeking someone who is pure of heart to inherit his powers, so that they can protect the planet from the monstrous manifestations of the seven deadly sins. Billy is of course chosen, and upon saying the wizard’s name “Shazam” he is immediately transformed into an adult superhero fully dressed in costume. From then on, Billy is free to switch back and forth between his normal teenage self and his older Shazam self all with the shout of a name.
After becoming Shazam, Billy is freaked out and thus he seeks out the help of his new superhero-loving foster sibling Freddy. The two of them work together to try to help Billy discover his powers through a series of tests, in what is probably the most entertaining part of the movie. Unfortunately the trailers spoiled most of that fun, but any scene with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is enjoyable, and he and Billy play off each other well. In essence, Shazam! is basically like Superman mixed with the movie Big but with modern day teenagers, and that’s where the film derives most of its humor from.
However, despite having the appearance of a fun, family-friendly superhero movie, this one is a lot darker than you might expect. It does have plenty of lighter moments, but a good half of the movie is unexpectedly ominous and twisted. Dr. Sivana, the film’s villain played by Mark Strong, is on a dark path that mirrors our protagonist’s. As a boy, he was rejected by the same wizard that gave Billy his powers. Now that he’s an adult, Sivana inherits his own power by being possessed by the seven deadly sins, and he can unleash their monstrous incarnations upon the world at will in an act of revenge. He first demonstrates this power in a disturbing boardroom sequence that’s practically the superhero movie equivalent of that infamously violent scene in Robocop. So just be warned, even though it’s PG-13, you might want to leave the little ones at home. It’s not exactly the smiling, bubblegum-blowing superhero movie that it’s being marketed as.
There’s similarly a glaring contrast between young Billy and adult superhero Billy, who to me seem like two radically different people. I hardly saw a semblance of similarity between them. Younger Billy, the somehow more interesting of the two, is distant, complex, and courageous, but still likable. Meanwhile, in the body of an adult superhero he becomes completely vain, selfish, playful, irresponsible, often cowardly, and overly dramatic. I don’t have an issue with either version, per say, but it’s like day and night with them. I even think both actors, young Billy (Asher Angel) and older Billy (Zachary Levi) give fine performances here, but I never saw a believable connection between them. Additionally, the wizard from earlier was supposed to be looking for someone who is pure of heart to take on the mantle of Shazam, but I don’t believe Billy ever fits that description. One of the first things he does after inhabiting the body of an adult is try to buy alcohol. Soon later, he’s headed to the strip club. Oh, and did I mention he’s also a narcissist and a thief? Not exactly the kind of qualities you’d expect from the golden boy of superheroes.
As far as the film itself goes, I personally never felt much of a connection with it either. It failed to ever engage me or make me care about what was happening. There’s a pivotal scene later in the movie that could have injected a lot of much-needed emotion and heart into the story, but its outcome is so nonchalant that it’s entirely unsatisfying. I’ll admit that I did like a few of the characters, particularly Billy’s adopted siblings Freddy and Darla, but I ultimately wound up feeling indifferent to the whole story. By the time the big climactic finale came, I was completely unmoved by it and was anxiously waiting for it to wrap up.
What makes that frustrating for me is that Shazam! is close to being a good film. The groundwork is there, but it’s messy, generic, and fails to live up to its potential. As much as I like Mark Strong, his villain is totally bland and feels like a character we’ve seen in countless superhero movies before. His monsters are also uninteresting and turn the ending into an overblown CGI fest. There’s a few twists towards the end that are fairly cool conceptually but they wind up feeling rushed and disappointing. It’s also kind of bizarre to me that Shazam and Sivana both seem to have pretty much the same powers as Superman. Maybe that’s true to the comics, but it doesn’t do much to set these characters apart or make them very appealing. I’d also like to mention there are a couple of lines that are surely cringe-worthy to anyone who actually plays video games, and the credits scene to me felt like such an obvious rip-off of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Overall, Shazam! is not a movie I have any interest in ever seeing again, but it’s still also better than most of the DCEU. Plus knowing that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will be joining the series soon as Black Adam at least has me somewhat intrigued by the sequel.
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