Movie Review: Shazam!
While Shazam! sometimes shares Billy Batson’s issues with figuring out whether it’s a child or a man, the film has enough fun and action to make it big.
Buckle up everyone, we’re right in the thick of spandex season! While the MCU is bookending the early blockbuster season, DC is sneaking their own caped caper into the mix with Shazam! While I think the misadventures of Billy Batson might have been the perfect chaser for what looks like a rather grim finale to the Avengers, Shazam! finds a way to make itself at home flying in Captain Marvel’s contrails. I came out of my early viewing feeling good, but mostly due to a strong finish. The early goings can be a little slow and trope-y, and the film has a distinct problem deciding which side of PG-13 it wants to be on. All in all though, the film has enough breezy popcorn fun to get the nod.
For ages, a counsel of wizards has held back the magical menace of the seven deadly sins. This has come at a cost: only Shazam (Djimon Honsou) remains to keep the vigil. He seeks a champion to be the new vessel for his powers, but he cannot find a mortal with a pure heart to pass the mantel onto. When one of his rejected vessels (Mark Strong) comes back to steal the powers of the seven deadly sins, he must entrust his powers to Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan with a wall around his heart. Wielding Shazam’s powers may give the 14 year old the body of a 20-something Adonis (Zachary Levi in a muscle suit), but growing up will entail more than beefy biceps and the ability to shoot lighting out of his fingertips.
Slow and Grow
Shazam! takes some time getting going, but I can’t really call its pacing bad. They weave the drama and comedy in and out, and there’s a decent amount of variety… but it is an origin story, so we don’t get a whole lot of action until we’re well past the halfway point. It also suffers from fairly one dimensional characters. Billy lives in a group home, and each orphan borders on stereotypical. In a film that takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to get where it’s going, the character development never rose above Hallmark Channel level. Billy learns to care about these people, but we don’t get a whole lot of incentive to do the same. Except Faithe Herman. She was adorable. But even then, adorable was her stereotype.
It left me feeling that Shazam! would have been best as a TV series: we could learn about Billy’s powers and problems in episodic chunks where the drama and comedy could feel like it was doing more than just keeping your attention off the lack of hero vs. villain smack-downs. Shazam! would be perfectly at home in something like Netflix’s now cancelled MCU block.
(Parental) Guidance System Malfunction
The other issue that stuck out with me was how that in-and-out flow of drama and comedy was mirrored in the ebb and flow between PG and almost-R content. This story boils down to “What if Big also had some super-hero stuff?”. One of the Easter Eggs even acknowledges its source material. So we get kids being kids. Half the time it’s cute. The rest of the time it’s crass. The montage where Billy gets some “help” testing out his powers was great. The part where he uses his new body to buy beer and get into a strip club was cheap. Everyone swears, and it’s often to insult or demean.
The action takes a similar tact. While Billy saves the day bloodlessly, Mark Strong’s villain gets to murder all he wants (often with snarling cruelty), as long as there’s no blood shown. This film feels like it couldn’t quite decide whether to aim for kids or their parents. In chasing both hares it nearly catches none.
Occupying the Middle Ground
Even with some growing pains, Shazam! hits it’s stride about halfway in, and the film finishes strong. The action is varied and well done, except a brief mid air tussle (which to be fair, is a fight style that hasn’t really improved since the Matrix Revolutions (hell, Superman 2) tried it). When the movie is being cute, it’s honestly winsome and funny. The villain is better than average, taking a play out of Black Panther’s book of giving us enough time to understand his motivations. And I won’t spoil the finale, but it goes a long way in papering over the movie’s faults and finishing on an upbeat, fun, and satisfying note.
It’s not a perfect movie, but Shazam! is perfectly fine popcorn fare. Will missing this movie ruin the DCEU for you (any more than the DCEU has tried to ruin itself already)? No, but it does have a ton of Easter Eggs in it. Of the three “New DCEU” films, this is the weakest, but it’s still miles ahead of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. My final feelings were much like with Captain Marvel: I’m glad the introductions are over and we can finally play with the toy we bought in the bigger cinematic sandbox. Oh, and give Faithe Herman her own spin-off, she’s great.