The DC Comics universe has definitely taken to heart the criticism that its movies have been too dark and foreboding. The more lighthearted approach worked beautifully with Wonder Woman and was carried to a wackier level with Aquaman. Now comes their latest effort, based on a relatively little-known comic book character, that proves so determinedly ebullient you begin to think they’re pumping laughing gas into the auditorium. The most kid-friendly DC movie so far, Shazam! is thoroughly entertaining. But much like its central character, a 14-year-old boy able to transform himself into a superhero by uttering the titular incantation, often the pic gives the impression of a kid playing in the adult leagues.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Shazam! is, like so many installments of intended franchises, an origin story. Not only of the title character, but also the villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), first seen as a little boy being mercilessly bullied by his older brother and domineering father. You can’t blame him for taking advantage of the dark powers of the Seven Deadly Sins when he grows up.
As for Shazam, he’s really Billy Batson (Asher Angel of Disney Channel’s Andi Mack), who at the story’s beginning is separated from his mother at a carnival and subsequently sent to a series of Philadelphia foster homes from which he continually runs away. He eventually winds up with an extended clan filled with five foster children including disabled teen Freddy (If‘s Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with the aid of a crutch and is obsessed with all things superhero.
One day while riding the subway, Billy finds himself mysteriously translated to an otherworldly cave where he encounters a wizard (Djimon Hounsou, employing his formidable baritone voice to full effect) who has apparently decided that Billy is the natural heir to the superpowers he can bequeath. Merely by saying the magic word, Billy becomes transformed into the brightly costumed, heavily muscled, adult character (Zachary Levi, who looks like he’s having the time of his life).
Upon returning home, the confused and overwhelmed Billy accidentally reveals his new abilities to a thrilled Freddy. At first, the most useful thing they can think of to do with Billy’s alter ego is buy some beer. But when they interrupt a convenience store robbery and Billy discovers, much to his childlike glee, that he’s impervious to bullets, he and Freddy decide to explore exactly what his superpowers entail.
The resulting sequence, filled with well-executed visual gags, is the hilarious centerpiece of the movie. Any kid who’s ever dreamed of being a superhero, and that’s pretty much all of them, will take delight in the duo’s over-the-top antics and their sheer delight in seeing exactly what Shazam can do (although Billy’s affirmation “I believe I can fly!” while attempting flight garnered groans at the screening, for obvious reasons). Among the amusing episodes in Henry Gayden’s screenplay is Billy and Freddy meeting with a real-estate agent in an attempt to find Shazam a proper “lair.” There’s also a sly visual homage to Big, to which Shazam! owes an obvious, oversized debt.
A loose ’80s-era vibe very much permeates Shazam!, which could easily have been produced by Amblin Entertainment back in the day. Unfortunately, the superhero movie plot mechanics eventually kick in big time, with elaborately staged battles between Shazam and Dr. Sivana taking up much of the film’s second half and becoming increasingly tiresome. By the time Billy’s new siblings have been transformed into superheroes themselves and the Seven Deadly Sins are fully revealed in their less than impressive CGI incarnations, combat fatigue has long set in. What should have been a fun, fast-paced 105 minutes or so is dragged out to a butt-numbing 132.
Shazam! will best be appreciated by younger (and younger at heart) audiences who should respond very enthusiastically not only to the broad comedy but also emotional components involving Billy’s desperate desire to be reunited with his mother and his growing attachment to his newfound family. His relationship with Freddy, which starts out frostily but eventually becomes deep friendship, also proves moving, not to mention providing the opportunity for a delicious cameo appearance by a certain familiar character in the DC universe near the film’s end.
Shazam! also benefits from the terrific performances by both the adult and younger performers. Levi is a delight in the central role, hilariously conveying the goofy adolescent within the strapping body of his musclebound superhero. Angel and Grazer work together beautifully as the teenage boys bonding over their joy at discovering Shazam’s powers, and Strong uses his fierce intensity and taut physicality to make his villain suitably fearsome even while providing subtle comic flourishes along the way.
Director Sandberg, who might have seemed a left-field choice for the assignment considering that his previous credits are the horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, infuses the jaunty proceedings with just enough scariness to garner Shazam! a PG-13 rating and satisfy older viewers.
Production companies: Warner Bros., DC Entertainment, DC Comic, New Line Cinema, Seven Bucks Productions, The Safran Company
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Faith Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriter: Henry Gayden
Producer: Peter Safran,
Executive producers: Jeffrey Chernov, Christopher Godsick, Walter Hamada, Geoff Johns, Adam Schlagman, Richard Brener, Dave Neustadter, Dany Garcia, Hiram Garcia, Dwayne Johnson
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Jennifer Spence
Editor: Michel Aller
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Costume designer: Leah Butler
Casting: Rich Delia
Rated PG-13, 132 minutes