Movie review: Shazam!

DC tries to lighten the mood with a bland teen drama

Shazam!
Directed by David F. Sandberg
With Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou

The DC Extended Universe expands again with Shazam!, based on a minor comic book character.

The film is a complete change of pace for DC, attempting to be funny and family oriented, after its dark takes on Batman and Superman.

But the result, while amusing at times, has the feel of a low-budget 1980s superhero film, and looks cheaply made compared to DC’s recent hits Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

The attempts at lightening the tone also seem very derivative of rival comic franchise Marvel’s goofy Ant-Man and teen-oriented Spider-Man films, which were much more successful in creating a consistent mood.

Shazam! aims very strongly at a male teen audience, and in doing that forgets to include enough to interest adults and other demographic groups.

The setting involves kids in high school, and the one depicted oddly seems to have hallways and a lunchroom, but no classrooms or teachers. Everything about the school is rather generic, down to the requisite rich-kid bullies who pick on a disabled kid for no reason.

The film focuses on Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teen boy who was abandoned by his mother at a fair, and who has been in and out of orphanages and foster homes ever since.

At the same time, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) has been searching for a successor to take his powers to protect the world. The wizard’s gray unkempt wig and robes, and his tiny, dark cave contribute to the cheap feel of the film, especially compared to vast underwater kingdoms in Aquaman or ancient temples in Wonder Woman.

The young Billy eventually takes over as Shazam, and transforms into a muscular adult (Zachary Levi), but is still an immature kid at heart. This gives us several scenes of him attempting to buy beer and other childish nonsense. Back in the late 1980s, several films such as Big and Vice Versa explored this vein of humor and Shazam! adds little new.

Zachary Levi as the adult version of Shazam is a bit too blank-faced to grab the audience. While Paul Rudd as Marvel’s Ant-Man brings a charming goofiness to his size-changing superhero. Levi as Shazam mostly seems obnoxious, though he tones it down a bit by the end as he starts to appreciate the powers he has and how they can be used.

The villain is yet another weak link. Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is one of those people simply bent on world domination. The battles with Shazam and Sivana flying around trading lightning bolts drag on way too long, and closely resemble the flying battles between Superman and General Zod in the 1978 film Superman. The film has a running time of 132 minutes, and could have benefited from some trimming of the repetitive action.

A bright spot, relatively, is the sensitive depiction of Billy Batson’s latest foster home, with two parents, Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), who make a sincere effort not only with Billy but with several other children, all of whom have some issues that make them outsiders.

The film does spend some time developing the other foster kids as well as young Billy’s efforts to find his original family, which keeps the film from being another end-to-end display of special effects.

The CGI though, when it is used, doesn’t live up to the standards set by other recent films.

Fans of comic book films may enjoy this very different take on superheroes, as well as the attempt at least to make the DC Extended Universe less dark, but more effort at originality in the derivative script would have helped turn this from a footnote into a must see.

People may notice that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is listed as an executive producer.

He at one point was slated to play the villain Black Adam, but then the concept of the film changed, so that Black Adam didn’t appear in the first Shazam film. Johnson is now scheduled to play Black Adam in a stand-alone film that is in development. Hopefully, he can breathe some life into the Shazam series when Black Adam and Shazam finally meet.

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