Goofy 'Shazam!' Desperately Wants Your Approval
The latest entry in the DC Extended Universe is lots of fun, but maybe too much.
Similar to its title character, who was forged in the corny Golden Age of 1940s comic superheroes, Shazam! is good, clean fun. It's also formulaic, jokey, and essentially redundant. Don't we already have a Superman? Shazam! is desperate to be a crowd-pleaser, which should thrill producers at Warner Brothers. The DC Extended Universe hasn't pleased many thus far. Shazam is a different kind of superhero. He's a kid at heart, like all of us, and therein lies the audience for this movie.
When he says the magic word, "Shazam," orphaned 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) transforms into a superhero who's also a fully grown man (Zachary Levi). Josh Baskin (who gets a shout-out) has nothing on this guy. Neither does Kal-El, apparently, as Shazam learns quickly he possesses all types of powers, from lightning manipulation to flight. Billy discovers his talents with the help of another orphan, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who has a drawer full of Superman and Batman stuff and can't fathom why Billy isn't more excited about being a superhero. Billy comes around quickly, however. He starts blowing things up, saving people, and is soon a viral sensation. It's not long before he has his very own archenemy, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), the original DC bald bad before Lex Luthor, and battling to save the world.
Kids will fall for Shazam!. It's bright and sunny and doesn't devolve into a CGI fest until the last half hour or so. This marks a contrast from the rest of the DC movies, which all essentially take place in the darkness (save Aquaman). Aquaman and Shazam! are proof of DC's intentions to become more like Marvel, something they've simply had to accept. And I'm not sure this is such a good thing. Darkness isn't the problem with DC movies. Uneven direction, unwatchable fight scenes, and weak writing are. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan had no problems with Batman. DC just needs better talent behind its films. Shazam! is directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), who brings his superhero into the light, but can't elevate the material past goofy Saturday morning cartoon level.
Sandberg also plays loose and fast with movie history, stealing scenes from Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Chronicle, and others. He has nothing new to contribute to the fantasy genre. The best part of the film is the superpower discovery sequence, but we've seen that before. The humor is unabashedly adolescent. Adults will groan while the children cheer. ("Thundercrack" and "Sir Zaps-a-Lot" are the best the writers could do for alter ego options.) The use of YouTube and selfies in Shazam! assure it a place in dated pop culture purgatory, and Zachary Levi, well... I'm still wondering how he got this gig.
The stars of Shazam! are Grazer and the rest of his foster brothers and sisters. The heart of the film is the search for family, and the kids have good parents right under their noses. It just takes the events of the film to make them realize it. That kind of messaging is hard to deny. It's also not sophisticated enough to be memorable. But credit the DC Extended Universe with delivering a fun superhero movie for kids. They just need to make one the rest of us can cheer for as well.