Last summer when the first Shazam! trailer was released, I was overjoyed. Shazam was a really unique and fun character that I never thought had been done justice in the mainstream and it looked like this movie was going to be the character’s breakthrough. About two weeks ago, when the first critical reviews were overwhelmingly positive (it currently holds a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), I got even more excited. DC seemed to have made another good movie and appeared to have found their groove. At last.
I was not quite as joyous when I left the movie theater last night. Shazam! is a fun and refreshing take on the superhero origin story, but the legitimate elation of this movie is surrounded by such a weak story I left the theater underwhelmed.
Shazam! tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi), a teenage boy who gains access to superpowers as the champion of the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Amazed by his gifts, Billy bonds with his new foster brother Freddie (Jack Grazer) in a humorous and perhaps more realistic take on what would happen if a 14 year old gained superpowers. This eventually brings him into conflict with the bitter Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who has been empowered by the spirits of the seven deadly sins to take Billy’s powers, which the Wizard denied Sivana when he was a boy. Billy must discover the full extent of his abilities and defeat both his inner demons and those Sivana has beset upon him.
The strength of this movie is Zachary Levi’s joyous portrayal of Shazam. Boosted by great writing, every moment Levi is on screen you feel the wonder a teenage boy would have if he was able to access a superpowered adult body. He is absolutely hilarious and at no point does the humor feel forced or like it is undercutting the plot. But as fun as Levi is, perhaps the best character in the film is Freddie, Billy’s disabled foster brother and a superhero junkie struggling to manage his envy towards. The other scene-stealer is their younger foster sister Darla (Faithe Herman), who is just the cutest.
The problem is that the movie cannot be two hours of Billy and Freddie messing around as they discover the full range of his powers and how nasty beer tastes. The film’s antagonist, Sivana, had the potential to be intimidating, but when he becomes merely a vessel for these vaguely defined demons empty of personality, his presence collapses. The scenes with just him, absent from Shazam, are cartoon levels of campy, joyless, and hard to watch. He’s not even a good villain either. There are a number of times he has Billy or his family at his mercy and we never feel like they’re actually in danger, nor is their actual fighting particularly intriguing to watch.
Also, the personalities of the hero Shazam and the boy Billy never felt congruent. As the teenager Billy, he is reserved, consumed with this desire to find his mother, and wants nothing to do with Freddie and his foster family. As Shazam, he is joyously messing around in a superpowered adult body with Freddie. This simmering quest to find his mother blocking him from community with his family seems to leave the picture as he jacks ATMs in order to buy video games. Shazam is a fun hero, but the boy Billy never felt like someone who would be fun or heroic.
The other problem is the subplot surrounding Billy’s family life. He is a foster kid who has been desperately trying to find his birth mother. I cannot go into great detail without venturing into spoiler-town, but over the course of the film, he has to make peace with his past and embrace his foster parents and siblings as family. However, the moment he discovers the truth shouldn’t lead to him embracing of his new family. There’s a dramatic shift in a quick period of time, but the movie never fully bridged the gap and the entire arc ends up guilty of the sin of convenience.
Not only is it logically insufficient, but also the plot devices and points in this arc are either lazy or underdeveloped. There’s one scene where the hero Shazam is advising his new foster sister Mary, a college-hunting high school senior who just got into Caltech (Mary doesn’t yet know Shazam is actually Billy). It’s a bad scene, but on top of that, we never found out if Mary actually decided to go to Caltech! It comes up twice in the movie and could be an example of this family dynamic it wants Billy to invest it, but the movie throws it away instead.
Shazam! is the worst solo movie DC has made. It substitutes the depth of Man of Steel, the inspiration of Wonder Woman, and the spectacle of Aquaman for joyous wonder at the prospect of being a superhero. It does this great. The problem is that the stuff surrounding Shazam and the individual members of his family is so sloppy it can’t be excused just because it succeeded in making me laugh. The sequel has the potential to be truly special, but this first installment didn’t quite pull its genuinely great parts together into a standout film from opening to end credits. While Shazam flies, everything surrounding him never really takes off.
Final Ranking: 6/10. Funny but flawed.