Shazam! (2019) starts in the ’70s with Merlin-esque wizards, mystical Magic 8 Balls, rich kids in limousines and gargoyle incarnations of the seven deadly sins. It only grows more incomprehensible from there. Once it gets to present-day Pennsylvania, Shazam! follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troublesome foster kid abducted by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou, who really needs to have a word with his agent) and given the power to turn into Zachary Levi by saying “Shazam!”
Levi, effortlessly charming and swole, makes the most of downright goofy material. Shazam has the power of Superman and the mindset of a 14-year-old. But Levi’s flabbergasted, jumpy performance so diverges from Angel’s performance as Billy that it’s hard to believe these two are the same person. Luckily, the film is saved by a robust supporting cast, including Mark Strong as the villainous Thaddeus Sivana and It alum Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy’s best friend and “manager,” Freddy.
Unlike the Marvel movies, this film follows a gang of nobodies, a bunch of foster kids who don’t save the day or punch aliens from space, but idolize the people who do. Freddy’s even got a superhero altar in his bedroom — there’s a Batarang, an Aquaman T-shirt and a bullet that bounced off Superman.
Director David F. Sandberg must really like The Goonies and Gremlins because Shazam! harkens back stylistically to those scrappy, dark Spielbergian movies, where kids could be both hero and villain and were always in mortal danger. In Shazam!, while the real bad guys are Dr. Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins, there are also some mean teens at school who nearly run over the disabled Freddy and later show up on a Ferris wheel, spitting on babies.
Sandberg, coming from a horror background (including Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation), has bizarre instincts as a filmmaker. His Seven Deadly Sins are genuinely frightening, with Giegeresque barbed tongues and rows of razor teeth. Every scene with them momentarily turns Shazam! into a horror film. And while there’s certainly a place for gritty horror in superhero movies, perhaps Shazam! is not the place to experiment with that.
The superhero scenes are at least colorful and well-shot by fellow horror alum Maxime Alexandre. Levi sports a stark crimson costume and swooping white cape, and there’s a cool, blue-toned palette throughout that sometimes looks a little too crisp. (Compare that to the last few DC films, which all look as though they were shot in the same back alley as Bruce Wayne’s parents.) The settings feel more real than the sound stages Justice League was filmed on, and the final act is more than just CGI explosions and quips.
For the most part, Shazam! is sly and quick-witted. Levi struts about oafishly like Tom Hanks in Big, the actor radiating more giddiness and magnetism than his paltry role in the Thor series allowed. But it’s Grazer who gets all the best lines, and though his disabled foster kid could easily turn into a cliché — as Newsies’ Crutchie does — he puts a spritely, fast-talking, mischievous turn on the character. “Your face gives off a very strong vibe of a kid who’s hatching schemes,” Billy tells him.
Around them, the plot moves at a snail’s pace. The film stops dead in its tracks for a testing-out-the-powers montage and too many scenes with Dr. Sivana, made bearable by Strong’s intimidating Terminator walk and Daniel Plainview voice. The script cries out for a good edit, as while things keep happening, there’s no economy to it, and this disposable tale about a 14-year-old transforming into a body-building superhero winds up being just two minutes shy of 12 Years a Slave, a movie that covers 12 whole years of human suffering and moral darkness. Both leave you feeling spent.
Part of the problem is the DC Universe. While the inspired Wonder Woman, torpid Justice League and commercial exercise Aquaman have succeeded in course-correcting the DC movies, Shazam! gives the series a much-needed sense of humor. But this is still a universe governed by Realism with a capital R — the climax is, again, two superhumans throwing each other through buildings in Philadelphia, and while the film tells us it’s supposed to be fun, we know that the last time this happened in a DC film, it was this universe’s equivalent of 9/11.
The moral compass is broken, too, by this uniformly unpleasant world. I don’t want to watch a superhero film where kids deserve to have their trucks smashed to bits, where people fall and get hurt and die, where leaping tall buildings in a single bound sometimes means crashing into a window by accident and presumably killing a few people. But inside it all, Shazam! is a story about Billy’s search for family. And Dr. Sivana’s search too, in a way, but he seems to find it among CGI gremlins who bite off people’s heads and pitch their corpses through windows.
Movies like Shazam!, however, are about family and believing in yourself because those are the simplest, most easily reducible options in the book. They’re very convenient themes to deal with if most of your story is superpowered action tedium with people occasionally interrupting the property destruction with a quip or two.
The end has an odd message that the perfect version of ourselves is someone buff and hot like a GQ cover model. And the film has a strangely Puritanical flavor, feeling ripped from the character’s first run in 1939 — the villains are the Seven Deadly Sins, for heaven’s sake. At least with Shazam!, DC and Warner Bros. remembered how to tell a fun story. Maybe next time, they’ll remember how to tell a good one.