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Shazam! Movie Review

Shazam! (2019) movie poster Shazam!

Theatrical Release: April 5, 2019 / Running Time: 132 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: David F. Sandberg / Writers: Henry Gayden (story & screenplay), Darren Lemke (story); Bill Parker, C.C. Beck (character)

Cast: Zachary Levi (Shazam), Mark Strong (Dr. Thaddeus Sivana), Asher Angel (Billy Batson), Jack Dylan Grazer (Freddy Freeman), Djimon Hounsou (Wizard), Faithe Herman (Darla Dudley), Grace Fulton (Mary Bromfield), Ian Chen (Eugene Choi), Jovan Armand (Pedro Peña), Marta Milans (Rosa Vasquez), Cooper Andrews (Victor Vasquez), John Glover (Mr. Sivana), Meagan Good (Darla Dudley - Adult), Adam Brody (Freddy Freeman - Adult), Evan Marsh (Burke Breyer)

 

The DC Extended Universe has a long ways to go before catching up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in box office receipts, critical acclaim, and, now, Academy Awards, but the Warner Bros.-based line has been making strides in one area: output quantity. DC had been giving us one or two films a year to Marvel's three, but as of now, DC has three 2020 releases scheduled compared to just two from Marvel.
To keep pace, DC has had to turn to characters who aren't deeply ingrained in the public consciousness and haven't ever appeared on film before. While the studio picks up the pieces from the wreckage of Justice League and figures out how to continue to cultivate the universe -- Wonder Woman and the billion dollar Aquaman suddenly seem like far sturdier cornerstones than longtime draws Batman and Superman -- they also give us Shazam!, a standalone superhero movie with relatively modest expectations and no concrete connection to anything bigger.

The character of Shazam, heretofore unknown to many prospective moviegoers, was introduced all the way back in 1940 ironically under the name Captain Marvel. Fawcett Comics, the original publishers, were sued by DC in the early 1950s for copyright infringement over perceived similarities to Superman. The lawsuit led to the character being retired, but he was resurrected and renamed Shazam in 1972 when DC licensed the property. Since then, Shazam has been tapped for live-action and animated television but not extensively and never as its own popular franchise.

This film, however, has been in development at New Line Cinema since the early 2000s, entering pre-production back in 2008. I'd love to tell you that all that time has given us a film for the ages, but the reality is that Shazam! is one of the most underwhelming and least significant films to come out of this ongoing superhero movie boom.

A transformed-swole Billy Batson (Zachary Levi) and fellow foster kid Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) find joy in discovering the new super powers at their disposal in "Shazam!"

We open with two prologues. The first, set around Christmas 1974, finds a young boy being summoned from the backseat of a very uncomfortable car ride with his nasty father (John Glover) and older brother, to a cave where the last surviving wizard (Djimon Hounsou) offers him all the power in the world if he can prove to be pure of heart. He fails and we've got our future villain. More recently, a young boy named Billy goes to a winter carnival with his mother and gets separated. And with that, we've got an orphaned hero with a tragic backstory.

Jumping ahead to present-day Philadelphia, we find 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) to be a moderately troubled product of the foster care system. He's run away from countless situations, largely to pursue the mother who apparently hasn't been able to find him. After locking a couple of police officers in a pawn shop and escaping in their vehicle, Billy finds his latest search to be a dead end. He is placed in a new foster home, this one run by the dorky, loving couple of Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans).

This new foster family is comprised of a diverse quintet of children: disabled bully magnet Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), adorably sweet Darla (Faithe Herman), nerdy gamer Eugene (Ian Chen), high school senior Mary (Grace Fulton), and monosyllabic Pedro (Jovan Armand). While skipping school one day, Billy gets whisked away from Philadelphia public transport to the same cave of the opening scene, where that aging wizard is still looking to pass his powers onto a worthy human. Running out of time after our now middle-aged villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (a bald Mark Strong) swoops in and takes away the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, the wizard gives his name to Billy, transforming him into his full potential, a muscular man resembling a bulked-up, slightly older version of NBC's "Chuck" (Zachary Levi).

Prologue-defined villain Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) and hero Shazam (Zachary Levi) cross paths for the first time in "Shazam!"

Shazam! is kind of fun when it's recalling the 1980s Tom Hanks classic Big by hanging with Billy and his new superhero-loving best friend Freddy. The film is set in a universe where Batman and Superman haven't been diminished by Zack Snyder movies.
Freddy prizes the two most historic DC heroes and is excited to test out potential powers in his suddenly buff and no longer underage foster brother. It's certainly not new ground and you'd have to have missed dozens of movies to feel the excitement that came from Tobey Maguire getting used to his new powers on rooftop and building side in Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man. But if you're young and haven't been exposed to the sundry of Marvel, DC, and other superhero flicks that have come in the years since, maybe you'll really enjoy the light, comic bits testing if Billy/Shazam can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes.

The flavorful diversion of these admittedly familiar power discovery scenes inevitably has to take a backseat to conflict. It is here where Shazam! loses any luster it has shown. For all their success, Marvel has demonstrated it's hard to come up with a compelling villain and a narrative that resonates while pushing us through the necessary action and effects beats. These were two of many areas where Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies shone. Swedish director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) is no Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) is no Jonathan Nolan.

Strong is a good actor, but he's held villain duties like this so many times from Sherlock Holmes to Kick-Ass that it's hard to imagine any filmmaker or executive hearing his name and just lighting up. Anyone can be a passable villain and Strong qualifies as that. But there's nothing to grab your attention or make you take notice. Billy, who is able to transform between his adolescent self and his swole adult version by saying "Shazam", has to learn the ole' "with great power comes great responsibility" lesson. It's all perfectly fine, albeit mediocre, until a hokey climax that feels like the launch of a new CW television series.

In fact, Shazam! feels like television with disconcerting frequency, not in the sense of Joss Whedon arc-juggling and mythology-rationing but just in its unsure-of-itself, please-keep-watching execution. Despite his forgettable role in Marvel's Thor sequels, Levi is foremost a television actor whose biggest film credit to date has been voicing Flynn Rider in Disney's Tangled. That's not to say you can't make an effective leap from television to film, as Chris Pratt has done and movie stars like Johnny Depp and Bruce Willis before him. But charismatic and dashing though he may be, Levi never makes you feel like you're watching cinema in Shazam! Bigger blame for that must lay with Sandberg and with the studio's inability to cast any actor with true big screen clout and presence here. That's no dig at Strong, whose body of work lives up to his surname. But it's hard to get jazzed by a final act touting surprise appearances by Adam Brody and Meagan Good. DC increasingly feels like the Joseph Fiennes to Marvel's Ralph Fiennes and it's kind of embarrassing.

In a world with 80% fewer superhero movies, the deficiencies of Shazam! wouldn't be as glaring. But even at its best, and it has a few charming and witty moments scattered throughout its slightly overlong runtime, the movie never rises above the middling ranks of Venom.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Captain Marvel • Us • Five Feet Apart • Gloria Bell • Climax
Zachary Levi: Tangled • Thor: The Dark World • Thor: Ragnarok | Jack Dylan Grazer: It | John Glover: Scrooged
Mark Strong: Sherlock Holmes • Kingsman: The Golden Circle • Kick-Ass • The Imitation Game • John Carter • Low Winter Sun: The Complete Series
Directed by David F. Sandberg: Lights Out
Written by Darren Lemke: Goosebumps • Jack the Giant Slayer
DC Extended Universe: Justice League • Suicide Squad • Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice • Wonder Woman
Venom • Big

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Reviewed March 23, 2019.



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