2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer | David F. Sandberg | 2 hr 12mins |
How overly saturated with superhero movies are we? Self-aware superhero movies about superhero movies feel been-there-done that. Playing like a PG-13 Kick-Ass with the in-movie irony of Deadpool, David F. Sandberg’s superhero entry exists in the same universe as DC’s Justice League. When superhero fanboy Fredy Freemore (Jack Dylan Grazer, the film’s breakout star) shows off a batterang or newspaper headlines about Superman they’re not talking about a comic book, but about Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel and Ben Affleck’s Batman. Shazam! brings down to the street level what it would be like for high school kids to grow up in a world of flying superheroes. Something that Spider-Man: Homecoming also did really well.
The ironic problem with this derivative feeling is that Shazam is a pretty delightful movie at times. Sandberg tries his damndest to squeeze through the cracks of everything else that has been done and find some new way to deliver a coming-to-grips-with-new-powers origin story. It works in the tiniest details, like the way Shazam learns that he can fly or this movie’s take on the villain’s boardroom-taunt scene in which Sandberg gets to flex his Annabelle horror muscles to great effect. A lot of this movie’s over 2 hour running time is devoted to our young hero, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) adapting to his latest foster home and one of the few people in this superhero world who knows nothing and cares not for superheroes. Naturally he becomes one because of the pure heart chosen one trope and is helped by the Freemore to put it to use. It’s here when Zachary Levi enters the picture as Batson’s adult magical superhero alter ego. Levi is terrific and next to Grazer makes this movie work when the script doesn’t. Shazam is fueled by both superhero origin story jokes and Big body swapping jokes and Levi and Grazer make them work.
As good as Levi and Grazer are here is how bad Billy Batson is as a hero. It isn’t Angel’s fault in the performance, Batson is written as the most sour, morose, disinteresting character. All of the Batson stuff, being a reluctant hero who would rather shoot lightening for cash or track down his real mother, finds the movie pulling against itself. It’s attempts to ground the character ring false, positively drowning him in that grounding. It’s never clear why Batson is the choosen one, why his heart is so pure, why he’s so bent on finding his mom or how he relates to Shazam as the adult and child in the same body act nothing alike. In addition to lightening fingers, flight and super strength, Shazam apparently gifts Batson with a personality. Batson never seems to like being Shazam when he’s not Shazam. At almost every turn in the movie’s second act it seems like we’d be seeing an all around more fun film if it were the crippled orphan Freemore who became a superhero.
For it’s flaws – again the script (particularly some of Mark Strong’s one-liners) is terrible – but Shazam does nail something that both most DC and Marvel movies botch – the climactic battle. For once one of these movies doesn’t devolve into a big, bloated, blurry, cartoonish CGI mess. A lot of the mental complaints I had with the first half of the movie get resolved in the 3rd act. Sandberg does a lot of contorting to get where he wants, but the payoff is great. It’s clean, exciting, fun and takes a royal turn that I kicked myself for not seeing coming. Sandberg turns the constraint of a small budget into a gift. The action feels tactile and visceral. There is a 90s action movie quality to the film, specifically it reminded me of The Mask in the way an ancient power is granted two different characters and the good and evil in them is manifested differently from that power. It also delivers a fun version of the Matrix Revolutions’ dreary sky fight.
Visually lighter with a pluckier tone than the usual DC movie, and more grounded and less cartoonish than the usual Marvel movie, Shazam is an odd duck working and not in fits and starts. Shazam clears the very low bar set by other DC movies (and a fake Sinbad movie), but it really just made me want to watch Kick-Ass again.