Updated: Feb 8, 2020
After the new DC Cinematic Universe’s first few entries, they were accused of being too dark in comparison to their rivals in the MCU. Then came Aquaman, which was lighter and goofier than the Superman and Batman movies. Now they have decided to tilt even further toward comedy with Shazam! Oddly, though its surface is comedy, it is darker and sadder than I expected. Just because it does not fully engage with that sadness does not mean it is not there. For long stretches it is a silly adventure, but the subject matter is strangely heavy. The comic book violence is also occasionally on the more brutal side. It is a weird mixture that kept bringing me out of the movie every time I started to get into it. It is not bad, but it is a bit of a lumbering, Frankenstein’s Monster-like, piece of entertainment.
Shazam! (121 minutes, plus the requisite superhero movie mid-and-post-credits scenes) is about Billy, an orphan bouncing from foster home to foster home as he searches for his birth mother. One day, while running from bullies, he is summoned by a wizard who gives him superpowers. The rest of the story is about Billy trying to figure out his new abilities as he is being hunted by an envious, demon-possessed, villain.
The idea of a kid who can suddenly transform into an adult superhero (or a superhero with the maturity of a teenager) has a lot of comedic potential. Shazam! does take advantage of some of it. His selfishness and ignorance of the consequences of his actions are funny at times. And there is some amusing stuff involving his ability to change from adult to kid by saying “Shazam.” However, next to all the silliness there is so much unresolved trauma in Billy’s story (as well as that of the evil Dr. Sivana). Whenever the movie goes back to it, it takes it awhile to recover. The humor is too light to completely withstand this material.
On top of that, it runs into an issue pretty common to these massive superhero franchises: mythology. This one is almost as deep as Wonder Woman and far more confusing. There are wizards and demons and chosen heroes and a mysterious realm where these things are found. Surprisingly, Shazam! does not spend much energy on setup or explanation. That is good since it allows more room for Billy’s adventure. But bad because it left me with a lot of questions. Maybe the answers will come in the inevitable sequel? Regardless, the fantasy stuff fits just as awkwardly as everything else.
One of the bigger problems I had is that kid Billy and adult Billy do not really seem like the same person. Sure, Asher Angel and Zachary Levi kind of look alike, but Levi never came off as a kid playing an adult. He is immature, yet his way of talking does not totally match Angel’s. While this is partly his fault, a lot of the blame falls on the screenplay. It sounds like a relatively minor thing, however it adds to the overall messiness of the production.
All that being said, it has a goofy, cartoonish quality to it that can be quite funny. I like that it gave time to the relationship between Billy and his new foster brother, Freddy. It also lingers on gags more than usual for the genre. I appreciated those things and wanted more of them. I thought this would be an adventure/comedy, similar to Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Instead, it is a combination of light comedy and the darker DC tone that only works sporadically.
2¾ out of 5
Zachary Levi as Shazam
Asher Angel as Billy Batson
Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman
Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana
Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley
Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield
Ian Chen as Eugene Choi
Jovan Armand as Pedro Peña
Cooper Andrews as Victor Vasquez
Marta Milans as Rosa Vasquez
Djimon Hounsou as Wizard Shazam
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Screenplay by Henry Gayden