Shazam! is the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi), a 14-year old foster kid who has been in-and-out of homes his whole life. Between migrations, Batson is constantly searching for his biological mother whom he got separated from at a carnival as a toddler and hasn’t seen since. After sticking up for a fellow member of his current family, Batson is chosen by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to become the next recipient of magical powers granting him super strength, speed, and flight among other abilities. When Dr. Thaddeus Sivana comes searching for Batson, wanting the powers of Shazam for his own schemes, Batson must decide what type of hero he will be.
What works in Shazam! is Levi and the levity. When powered up, Levi is pound for pound the most entertaining element of the film. His giddiness radiates off his ultra-bright suit, muscles, perfect hair and dimples in an infectious manner. The joy he exudes is something many comic book films have been forgetting—it would probably be really fun to be a superhero at times, and Shazam! smartly differentiates itself by focusing on this theory. Watching Levi discover his own powers with awe and disbelief and then trying to figure out how to best use them is simply delightful given how earnest it all feels.
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While Shazam! flies high on Levi’s charisma for long stretches, some inconsistencies in characterization and tone keep it from really taking off. The first instance of this is the difference between Angel playing the physical 14-year old and Levi as the man-child. Angel always feels a little colder and abrasive compared to his adult counterpart to the point they feel like two disparate people. This further complicates things because the mythos of Shazam! is that the champion is chosen because he or she is pure of heart. Angel’s Batson performs one random act of kindness which doesn’t seem to balance out his multiple transgressions audiences are privy to before and after gaining powers including stealing, lying, manipulating, and being incredibly selfish. While giving Billy the opportunity to grow into his hero is a worthy narrative, the endpoints of the arc director David S. Sandberg chose makes it feel like the wizard chose his successor rather poorly.
Returning to the whimsical nature of Shazam!, the story takes some unexpectedly dark turns. Undoubtedly this is an attempt to balance out the playfulness that permeates the central core, but parents should be reminded that the film is rated PG-13 for some surprisingly heavy themes and sequences. Some of these moments at the hands Sivana whom, despite Strong do as much as he can with the character, comes across as a one-note forgettable antagonist that could be distilled down to “evil Shazam with pet monsters.” It’s almost a little too clear that the original script had Black Adam (the real anti-Shazam that Dwayne Johnson may one day play) as the villain up until the last minute as the abilities Sivana has are far closer to Adam’s than his comic book counterpart, and the central story in Shazam! is almost beat for beat a Black Adam arc from the recent New 52 DC run. The “find and replace” operation performed with the villain makes the whole affair a bit clunky and also tries to introduce too much mythology and universe-building too quickly.
Shazam! is fun. Levi demonstrates that he can command a tentpole superhero film with bravado, keeping the audience laughing through physical comedy and great line delivery. Unfortunately, the other elements of the film feel like afterthoughts, which makes for a disjointed experience sprinkled with entertainment.
Recommended if you enjoyed: Big, Superman Returns, Spider-Man