ShazamReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/04/19 11:40:19
“Shazam!,” the latest superhero epic to spring forth from the pages of DC Comics in the hopes of challenging the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe for supremacy at the box-office, is trying to do two things at once—it is trying to be a cheerfully goofball entertainment that will stand in blessed relief to such dour recent DC efforts as “Batman vs. Superman,” “Justice League” and the abysmal “Suicide Squad” and it is trying to be an action spectacular for those who are either unfamiliar with the central character or know just enough of his backstory to look upon him as some kind of joke in comparison to the more well-established superhero characters out there. This is roughly the same position that they found themselves in a few months ago with the undersea epic “Aquaman” and while I did not care for the end result very much, I will grudgingly accept the fact that it did work for a lot of people and the sheer weirdness of the entire enterprise perhaps warrants a second look at some point down the road. In the case of “Shazam!,” however, I suspect that additional viewings will not be necessary because while “Aquaman” was strange enough to stick in the mind, there is precious little to this one that will do the same. For a film like this to work, it needs to find the right tone and stick with it throughout and while there are sporadic moments when it does just that, there are far too many other moments when it just flits about aimlessly without demonstrating any particular reason for its existence.Our hero this time around is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a kid who was abandoned as a child by his mother and has bounced in and out of at least a half-dozen foster homes—all while trying to track down the real mother that he is certain is still out there—as our story begins. Now installed with his latest family, an ultra-cheery and kind mom and dad and several other foster kids who combat the new arrival’s sullenness with love, Billy is essentially marking time until he can take off and begin his search anew. Despite his attitude, Billy is theoretically a decent kid at heart and demonstrates that when a couple of bullies pick on disabled foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) by deliberately hitting him with their truck and then smacking him around. Billy decks the jerks, takes off and is chased into the subway where he hops a train to escape. After the inevitable mumbo-jumbo, the train eventually deposits Billy in the cavern lair of The Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), an ancient mystic who has been standing guard over the Seven Deadly Sins in statue form and who has long been seeking someone pure of heart to assume his god-like powers and carry on the tradition. Although Billy seems more than a little problematic, he assumes the powers and when he utters the word “Shazam!” aloud, he transforms into an adult superhero type (now played by Zachary Levi) who looks as if he came directly out of a Fifties comic book.
Billy is understandably giddy over his new powers and he and Freddy, a confirmed superhero buff (who even owns an authenticated bullet that was unsuccessfully fired at Superman), go about trying to figure out exactly what they consist of via a combination of dumb luck (while the adult-looking Billy and Freddy try to buy beer at a minimart, they interrupt a robbery and learn that Billy has “bullet immunity”) and a series of goofy “Jackass”-style stunts that get posted to the Internet. Taking an even greater interest in Billy’s new-found powers is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who, as a boy, was offered his own chance to assume the Wizard’s strengths but failed the test. Still seething with resentment, he has dedicated his life to returning to the Wizard and getting what he feels is his due and when he discovers that Billy now has them, he frees the Sins to serve as his demonic posse and begins to wreak havoc in his determination to best the kid and assume the powers at last.
Let us get back to all that stuff about tone that I was talking about. Two of the very best superhero movies (both DC properties, coincidentally)—and I don’t think I will get too many arguments in this regard—are the original 1978 “Superman” and the more recent “Wonder Woman.” In those cases, the films walked a very narrow line between silliness and seriousness without ever tilting too far in one direction or the other. Both films certainly had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks at certain points but they took themselves and their viewers seriously enough to keep the proceedings from devolving completely into camp nonsense. By comparison, “Shazam!” never quite hits the mark because it cannot quite decide if it wants to be an exuberant fantasy of a kid whose desire to be considered a grown-up finally bears fantastic fruit—essentially an adolescent take on "The Greatest American Hero" with a splash of "Big" added for good measure—or if it wants to be goofier and edgier work about a teenager who is bestowed with unimaginable powers and winds up screwing around with them in an increasingly selfish manner until he is finally forced to grow up and beat the crap out of some bad guys to save the day, sort of like what “Kick-Ass” (or at least the TV edit of “Kick-Ass”) might have been like if Kick-Ass possessed actual super powers. Combining the two is not necessarily a bad idea but neither writer Henry Gayden nor director David F. Sandberg can figure out a way of blending the two opposing tones into one. As a result, the story moves in fits and starts and while some of them are endearing enough on an individual level, it never really builds to much of anything and at 132 minutes (including the inevitable post-credits sequences), there is just too much of not much of anything to sustain interest. Whatever the flaws of “Aquaman,” and there were plenty of them, it found its silly tone early on and more or less sustained it throughout, though it isn’t as if it really had a choice in the matter considering the subject matter.
Speaking of “Aquaman,” the best thing about that film, beyond the sheer audaciousness that something so ridiculous could possibly exist in the first place, was the performance by Jason Momoa in the title role—like Christopher Reeve and Gal Gadot before him, he was able to demonstrate a sly sense of humor that never curdled into contempt and which, in his case, was far more endearing and watchable than the surrounding film. In a similar vein, Zachary Levi is easily the best part of “Shazam!” because he perfectly embodies the kind of wide-eyed adolescent giddiness of the suddenly adult and suddenly powerful Shazam and watching him as he tries to figure out his powers is consistently amusing. He also manages to salvage, as much as possible, the less interesting material involving his arch-villain and the increasingly impersonal fight sequences in which buses crash, buildings shake and none of it really makes any noticeable impact. Unfortunately for him, the film more or less turns out to be a one-man-show that sags considerably when he is off the screen. As the younger Billy and Freddy, Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer are endearing enough at first but grow increasingly uninteresting as things develop while Mark Strong, whose presence does not exactly inspire one to overlook the “Kick-Ass” comparison, has been playing this type of role for so long now that he appears to be as bored with doing it as we in the audience are with watching him doing it.Maybe my lack of a positive reaction to “Shazam!” is due to a general case of superhero movie fatigue. Maybe it is because I happened to see this particular film just a couple of days after watching “Captain Marvel,” a film that was hardly perfect, to be sure, but at least took advantage of its all-but-certain blockbuster status to take a few chances with the standard superhero formula instead of constantly hedging its bets as “Shazam!” does with the mishmash of stories and plot points that crop up without ever quite paying off (with the one involving the missing mother being especially infuriating). To be certain, the film is a crowd-pleaser by design but it is pleasing a crowd that I am personally not that eager to join. After walking out of “Aquaman,” I wasn’t thrilled with it in the slightest but I could at least entertain the possibility that a second one, unburdened with the need to be yet another origin story, could really cut loose and do something really entertaining and inventive. That might be the case for “Shazam!” as well but while a sequel is pretty much all but a given, I am not exactly going to be counting the days until it finally appears.
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