Review: “Shazam!”

3 out of 5 stars.

If “Aquaman” was lauded as the current DC cinematic universe’s first real foray into more light-hearted fare, then “Shazam!” takes it to a whole new level.  The film based on the comic book superhero originally known as Captain Marvel is more a comedy than anything else, with eye-popping visuals and a cast largely led by kids.  But while “Shazam!” is proof that DC is continuing to take steps in a better direction, the film is not without its fair share of issues.

Directed by David F. Sandberg, “Shazam!” follows Philadelphia teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid who has repeatedly gotten into trouble with the law and moved from home to home ever since he got separated from his mother as a young child.  He is constantly searching for her, even after he is put into a promising group home headed by a kind couple and inhabited by several other foster kids, including Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled boy with an affinity for superheroes.  It is while defending Freddy from bullies that Billy is summoned by Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), an aging wizard who for centuries has searched for someone who is pure of heart to take over his powers.  Suddenly, by uttering the wizard’s name—“Shazam!”—Billy turns into a super strong adult (played by Zachary Levi) with a colorful costume and an array of powers.  He enlists Freddy to help him navigate his newfound powers, befriending him in the process, but all the while a villain named Sivana (Mark Strong) who controls the Seven Deadly Sins is looking for Billy so he can take over the powers of Shazam.

“Shazam!” is entertaining throughout, and not just with action sequences and special effects.  It’s legitimately funny, and really leans into the corniness of its subject matter.  This is the first DC film to really deal with a superhero whose powers are derived from magic, and that fantasy element has a lot of potential.  Unfortunately, not all of that potential was used here.  Despite an initially intriguing backstory, Strong’s Sivana turns out to be your everyday evil genius, who by the end of the film is nearly impossible to take seriously.  Meanwhile, the final act stretches out to an unbearably long length.  Sure, it’s cool to see Billy finally embrace the full extent of his powers, and to see the Sins take the form of grotesque beasts that he engages in battle against the bright lights of a winter carnival.  But it drags on for longer than necessary, and after experiencing several near-climatic moments, the actual climax loses some of its impact.  The earlier half of the film also struggles with some jarring shifts in tone as it tries to balance the humor associated with Billy with the darkness of the film’s villain, with one sequence in particular jumping from light-hearted shenanigans to a scary and surprisingly violent scene involving Sivana.

Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Billy (Zachary Levi) test his newfound powers as Shazam.

The film does feature a cast of amazingly talented young actors, with Grazer in particular exuding a charming awkwardness while delivering some of the movie’s funniest lines.  Another stand-out is Faithe Herman’s Darla, a clever little girl with a lot of energy, as well as a lot of heart.  Angel and Levi are both great as well, with Levi really selling the fact that he is a young boy in a grown man’s body.  The issue with their performances—and this is likely more a script problem than a problem with the actors themselves—is that they are supposed to be playing the same person, but it often doesn’t feel like it.  Billy is overall a pretty serious kid, and is more than capable of taking care of himself.  He doesn’t want a new family, or to hang out with friends; he just wants to find his mom.  But when he transforms into “Shazam,” a newfound giddiness seems to take over him.  He behaves in a more immature and obnoxious manner, and even comes off as less intelligent.  Sure, it’s necessary to employ some methods to make the fact that Levi is playing a kid playing an adult believable, but there’s a disconnect between Shazam and Billy that is never fully resolved.

But through Billy and his fellow foster siblings, this film does drive home a nice message about finding your family, as well as the hero within yourself.  It isn’t revolutionary, but it does finally really feel like DC is establishing a cinematic universe, and is finally placing its focus where it needed to the most: on the people.

Runtime: 132 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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