Anyone who’s been a comics fan at a young age can attest to this: wishing to one day be a superhero. To have powers to vanquish evil. To be able to do things no other person can. This dream becomes a reality in David F. Sandberg’s «Shazam!». This creates a genuinely great and entertaining first half.
The second part, however, exposes some serious structural problems that threaten to crush the movie’s entire foundation. In the end, the movie does stand its ground – not without several large cracks, however.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is your stereotypical troublemaker. He’s searching for his mother, who he hasn’t seen since she lost him in a Philadelphia Christmas market before disappearing without a trace.
12 years later, Billy meets the disabled Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) in his new foster home – one of many, as Billy has a tendency to run away from them. Billy stands up for Freddy when he gets teased by some bullies. This grants him access to a mysterious cave, where an ancient wizard wants to give him his power. Recently the seven deadly sins were unleashed on earth in the shape of deadly demons, and the world needs a hero to lock them back up.
The only thing Billy needs to do to turn into the ultimate grown-up superhero version of himself (Zachary Levi) from now on is say the word «Shazam!».
«Shazam!» begins with promise, as the movie takes time to correctly develop characters and establish relationships: Billy Batson doesn’t want a new family, he wants to find his old one. That’s why he always runs away. As a child, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) was judged by the wizard not to be worthy of his powers. And Freddy Freeman’s constant urge to create a world for himself that’s more colourful and magical than any episode of Game of Thrones is actually a cry for attention.
Freddy Freeman’s actor Jack Dylan Grazer particularly steals every scene he’s in. Aside from being incredibly funny when rattling off his writings quicker than Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s «Sherlock», he also serves as the movie’s emotional anchor. This doesn’t detract from Billy Batson’s character either, whom Asher Angel gives a fitting rebellious touch that never seems annoying or out of character. He’s simply a prankster, but an endearing one.
Then there’s Zachary Levi, who plays the grown-up Batson. Just like Tom Hanks in «Big», he’s a child in a man’s body. His performance is good enough so that the audience doesn’t need a reminder that this is supposed to be a man acting like a child every ten minutes. His first act as Shazam, for example, is to buy beer for himself and his friend Freddy. He then realises that he actually hates the taste of it and disappointedly exchanges the remaining cans for crisps, nachos and popcorn.
So we’ve established and laughed at the joke about a kid in a man’s body. At least at the start. Then he does it again. And again.... and again. This wouldn’t be that bad, if it weren’t the only thing happening in act two.
In fact, Billy Batson aka. Shazam and his friend Freddy completely waste this part by repetitively and constantly trying to find out what Billy’s new superpowers are. The movie is officially running in circles. Nothing of note happens. Every single plot line established in the first act is dropped. Such as the search for Batson’s birthmother. Or the evil Dr Sivana, who must be on his union-mandated coffee break or something, as he only reappears in the third act.
Yes, the superpower montage is amusing: the first time Shazam is shot at, the two boys can’t agree on whether Shazam himself or only his suit is bulletproof. So of course, they ask the baddies to shoot him in the face – this is all recorded on a smartphone by the way. This is ridiculous, even when compared to your average Youtube fail compilation.
But aside from some hit-or-miss gags, nothing that advances the story in any way occurs for an hour. And at the tenth «haha, I’m a kid in a man’s body»-joke, my patience did start running dry. To add to this nonsense, «Shazam!» tries to shoehorn in some plot about a foster home assistant called Mary (Grace Fulton). This immediately gets dropped without having led anywhere, of course. This couldn’t be more random.
And out of nowhere, the final battle between Dr. Sivana and Shazam occurs. Before this, the writers attempt to tie up the only seemingly relevant plot thread in such an asinine way – I won’t go into details due to spoilers – that I’m starting to wonder why I’m even watching this.
And now we come to «Shazam!»’s biggest problem: the villain. Mark Strong’s character never seems like anything more than your run-of-the-mill villain of the week. This is due to a complete lack of motivation on his part, aside from the admittedly enjoyable first five minutes. What doesn’t help either is that he’s basically just an evil copy of Shazam. It pains me to say this, as the Brit is truly an accomplished and respectable actor.
At his side are the seven deadly sins: creatures whose CGI is so bad, that it seems as though their graphics didn’t finish rendering. The same thing ruined Steppenwolf in «Justice League» and Doomsday in «Batman v. Superman». Just as it did the god of war Ares in «Wonder Woman» and Incubus in «Suicide Squad».
It’s pretty much the same story in every DC expanded universe movie.
How the executives at DC haven’t understood that this trash doesn’t raise the stakes at all is beyond me. But this is neither here nor there. The action itself is satisfying, looks good – aside from those dollar-store demons – and even has some fun moments, with Shazam and Freddy arguing like an old married couple in the middle of a fight.
Here’s the thing about «Shazam!»: if you wanted to, you could hang this movie up by the ankles and totally roast as many things as you wanted about it while naming it the absolute worst of this still young cinematic year.
But characters like Billy Batson, Shazam, Freddy and their foster family get in the way. Their acting efforts give this movie more heart and personality than any of the aforementioned DC movies combined. And there are some legitimate laughs hidden among the sea of average gags. There’s accurate digs on the superhero genre, references to other DC characters – Superman in particular – that were never more appropriate than during the Snyder era, and ideas that, while not thought through to the end, are topical and hit home.
And even when fighting for the fate of the entire world, Shazam’s main motivation comes from the people he loves and cherishes. This is refreshing.
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