Shazam! is the fourth movie released by Warner Brothers to feature one of their DC Comics superhero properties since 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that effectively killed the dream of an interlocking cinematic universe to rival Marvel Studios. Each subsequent film has felt like a direct rebuke to BvS: the less said about Suicide Squad the better; Wonder Woman was a clearly salvaged film that nonetheless succeeded with a few solid action sequences and a memorable lead performance; and, of course, Aquaman flooded the box office back in December. I wasn’t a fan of the latter film, but its popularity comes from a calculated construction I couldn’t help admire. Shazam! feels like a smaller-scale Aquaman: tonally incoherent, inexplicably plotted, desperate to entertain. A movie many viewers may well like a lot. Like Aquaman, it didn’t do it for me.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid whose mother left him behind at a carnival when he was a little boy. He’s bounced from home to home, running away the first chance he gets, eventually finding himself living with Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) and their five other Foster kids. Their home hosts a diverse group of kids. Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) — a young disabled boy — becomes Billy’s first friend, and soon his confidant when the mysterious wizard Shazam imbues Billy with magical ability.
By saying the word “Shazam,” Billy becomes an adult superhero (played by Zachary Levi) with speed, invulnerability, the power of flight and electrical abilities. Levi’s pretty great at embodying the wide-eyed wonder of a 15-year-old who suddenly gets big (or Big, as the movie frequently reminds us of the premise it shares with the Tom Hanks classic). The sequences featuring he and Freeman exploring his powers are the highlights of the film. You can see most of them in the trailer.
Unfortunately the script by Henry Gayden is, like Aquaman before it, burdened by the sense that Warner Brothers’ suits felt Shazam! would be a one-off and, thus, every bit of the eight-decade-old comic mythology would need to be referenced and explained. It all begins with a prologue about the villain that feels forced and unnecessary and eventually becomes a bunch of characters straight-up describing meaningless aspects of DC Comics magic to the audience for no real reason. Aquaman gave you seven undersea kingdoms to distract from the shallow nature of its protagonist. But here, Billy’s pretty likable, and Levi as Shazam even more so. The excess lore fails to earn its presence between moments of that kids hanging out.
Meaningless, too, is Mark Strong’s second outing as a DC villain; his first was in 2011’s Green Lantern, which was not much worse than this). His Doctor Sivana is all anger and no real pathos, a jealous child deemed unworthy of the Wizard’s power. He is possessed by the “seven deadly sins,” cloudy smoke monsters who don’t seem to do much. The action sequences feel weightless compared to the city-destroying intensity of Man of Steel, the flawed but increasingly fascinating first outing in this decade of DC movies. Many fans would like to forget Man of Steel, but curiously Shazam! alludes to it frequently, right up to the final scene — with a closing shot so bizarre that it somehow encapsulates the current state of this franchise in the saddest way possible.
There are plenty of thinkpieces to come from aspects of Shazam!, most notably its depiction of children of all shapes and sizes becoming idealized superheroes who look like models. A young boy with a disability loses his cane; a 7-year-old becomes a grown woman with a stylish costume. I’m not really the one to write those because I’m not sure this movie deserves that much time and attention from anyone.
Levi is genuinely good as the title character. It would be fun to see him in a film that feels more focused on his adventures or includes his childlike innocence alongside the other DC Extended Universe heroes. I mentioned before that this is the first of the post-BvS films to embrace the shared universe that is now for all intents and purposes dead. Ironically the credits feature a Marvel Studios-style animated accompaniment that feels like what this movie should have been — Shazam high-fiving Superman, goofing on Batman, being shy around Wonder Woman. Instead we’re mostly stuck with a drip villain and a plot that never lets the lighthearted bits shine. Oh, well.