Warner Bros. brings some levity to their generally dour DC Extended Universe with Shazam!, a well intentioned but ultimately disappointing superhero entry that strains a bit too hard for likeability.
Part family-friendly comedy and part body swap movie, it does offer some new storytelling elements to the most saturated film genre at the moment, but the execution of these ideas doesn’t feel as inspired as it should. Director David F. Sandberg works hard to emulate the tone of kid-centric 1980s Spielberg productions like E.T. and Gremlins. In the process, he reminds us how challenging it is to recreate that magic.
After a drawn-out prologue starting in the mid-’70s, we’re brought up to present day to meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled teen who has gone from one foster home to another after being abandoned by his mother at a young age.
Traveling on the subway one day, Billy is transported to a magical realm where a weakened wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) bestows Billy with the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Along with his newest foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy learns how to harness his newfound powers in order to stop the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).
The strongest facet of the film can be found in Levi’s performance as the body-swapped hero, which channels the same wide-eyed giddiness that Tom Hanks used for his similar role in Big. Levi is certainly the source of the movie’s biggest laughs. He also has excellent comedic chemistry with Grazer, who gets in a few quality one-liners of his own despite the fact that his character is underdeveloped and sidelined at critical points in the story.
Ironically, Strong represents the weakest aspect of the movie as he glowers through another bland and one-note supervillain role. Shazam is the kind of idiosyncratic character that demands a more compelling foil, but Sivana offers the same kind of obstacles for our hero that we’ve seen plenty of times before. At one point during the film’s pre-production, Dwayne Johnson was lined up to play Shazam’s nemesis Black Adam, which is a much more compelling scenario than what Warner Bros. opted for instead.
The screenplay by Henry Gayden does have a handful of quality jokes, despite being all over the map in terms of comedic tone, but it’s saddled with the task of also providing a straight-faced superhero narrative. The film’s overextended climax, which contributes heavily to the bloated runtime, involves the same kind of weightless CGI aerial brawl that sunk the otherwise worthwhile Superman outing Man of Steel in 2013.
I applaud Shazam! for attempting to shake things up within the DCEU, but the film lacks the kind of clear artistic conviction that would have made the gamble pay off.
Also coming to theaters this weekend
Pet Sematary, starring Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz, is the latest Stephen King adaptation about a family who summons evil forces after meddling with a mysterious burial ground.
The Best of Enemies, starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, tells the true story of a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader who debate school segregation in 1970s North Carolina.
Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore and John Turturro, reimagines 2013’s Gloria about a free-spirited woman in her 50s who seeks new love amid the Los Angeles dance club scene.
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