The removal of Zack Snyder in the DCEU seems to have a sparked a wide array of MCU-inspired films from Warner Bros. You know, movies filled with meta-humor that don’t take themselves as seriously as, say, “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs Superman.” Snyder wanted to so badly bring the dark layers that Christopher Nolan’s sublime, game-changing Dark Knight trilogy had, but those movies felt artificial rather than authentic and humane. The drastically lighter tone shown in post-Snyder movies “Wonder Woman,” and “Aquaman” has none-too-surprisingly led to the hiring of James Gunn for “The Suicide Squad.” It is, after all, because of Gunn that the MCU has had this tonal shift in humor, his 2014 sci-fi romp “Guardians of the Galaxy” changed the game for the MCU, paving the way for how they were going to handle their ensuing films (just look at “Thor Ragnarok,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Doctor Strange,” “Captain Marvel.”)
Enter the kitschy funhouse of “Shazam!” Directed by David F Sandberg (whose “Lights Out” remains one of the great underrated gems of the horror genre this decade). His latest movie feels like it belongs in the ‘80s tradition of young kids caught up in extraordinarily bizarre situations, such as “The Goonies,” and “Gremlins.” “Stranger Things” ran with these influences as well in 2014 to become a mega-hit for Netflix, “Shazam” wants to be just as significant, but I don’t think it is.
The plot is rather simple, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is an orphan that can’t quite fit in with any of the foster homes that have been assigned to him by his social worker, at the same time he’s trying to track down his mother, who abandoned him as a child at a theme-park. Long story short, Billy’s finally placed in a decent-enough home with a family that goes that extra mile to support him. However, not too soon after that, as Billy is taking a subway ride home, an unannounced stop brings him to an underworld where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) blesses him with superheroic powers. All the kid has to do now is say the word “Shazam” and he magically turns into an adult-sized, muscularly built, cape-wearing Zachary Levi, what more can you ask for?
“Shazam!” isn’t aiming to change the narrative game when it comes to the superhero genre, rather it decides to adhere to its influences at heart; This is a kid-friendly DCEU movie with a fun concept and is powered by an excellent performance from. Levi, whose charmingly naive portrayal of adult-sized Billy is warm and affectionate.
Of course, with all of these films, there has to be a villain and Mark Strong plays a man with wizard-like powers of his own that is looking to grab Billy’s and destroy the world with it, where have we seen before? Strong’s role is undercooked, his scenes not as involving as Levi’s which are fun, bounciful and full of energy. Especially when he learns of his powers and tries them out with roommate Freddy (the scene-stealing Jack Dylan Grazer), a boy on crutches with an abrasively hilarious mouth.
The decision to have this, supposedly, lighter and gentler DCEU film run at an overcooked 132 minutes is a major problem as it stagnates any kind of momentum that may have been built in the Billy and Freddy scenes. Surprisingly, the DCEU isn’t done yet in depicting incredibly dark and horrific sequences, even in “Shazam!.” The tonal inconsistencies between light humor and dark violence are present throughout the film. Just when Shazam!” is about to win you over with its satirically cartoonish style, Sandberg goes back to Strong’s villain, an incredibly mean character that unleashes demons on innocent bystanders anywhere and everywhere he goes. Those scenes, which feel like they belong in a whole other, separate film, go far enough in shock value to make you wonder how the WB ever got away with nabbing an audience friendly PG-13 rating from the MPAA with this one.
There’s also unnecessary exposition and wooden supporting characters. Even worse, the climactic battle drags, going on for far too long. “Shazam!” could have been a major revelation if it was edited more tightly. Rgeardless, as it stands, it is a significant improvement over almost any other DCEU film we’ve had released so far. [B-/C+]