Remember when superhero movies were fun? Someone at DC does

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Thursday 4

3 out of 5

Following the unofficial collapse of Zack Snyder’s DC cinematic universe, single-serving episodes have become the norm. Interestingly, the first two films that fit the bill couldn’t be more different. Aquaman was an all-out spectacle crammed with enough storylines for two trilogies. Shazam! is almost quaint in its approach to superheroes: straightforward, with clear values and direction — a far cry from Snyder’s grim moral relativism.

The superhero genre is known for catering to 12-year-olds, but usually it’s at least a bit subtle.  Shazam! openly targets a younger crowd. Refreshing, and sure beats Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice pandering to alt-right weirdos.

Shazam! loads its first half-hour with mythology. In a different realm from Earth, the wizard Shazam (the ubiquitous Djimon Hounsou) guards seven demons, also known as the seven deadly sins. Shazam has grown weaker and desperately needs a champion to take over. Unfortunately, he’s also picky, and inadvertently creates a nemesis when he rejects an earlier candidate, Thaddeus Sivana, for not having a pure heart (we’ve all been there, buddy).

Years later, an adult Sivana (Mark Strong as a trendy Dr. Evil) helps free the aforementioned deadly sins. In desperation, the wizard picks a mildly heroic foster kid, Billy Batson (newcomer Asher Angel), to succeed him. Upon uttering the word “Shazam!”, Billy becomes a caped hero (Zachary Levy, Chuck) with super strength, speed and power over lighting.

There are obvious problems with granting unlimited powers to a 14-year-old, and those are magnified with Batson. Obsessed with finding his mom, Billy has ditched foster homes all across the U.S. Eventually he lands in a good one, but he doesn’t realize it and screws it up.

This kid is only marginally “good”. When Billy uses his powers for personal gain, he becomes easy prey for Sivana. The learning curve is steep and Billy has limited time to become competent and learn some integrity.

(Maybe the wizard should’ve picked a 14-year-old girl. They’re more mature at that age.)

Shazam! isn’t shy about its similarities to the old Tom Hanks’ comedy Big — in fact, the film is at its best when it uses that 1988 classic as a blueprint. Paired with Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer, It), a superhero-obsessed foster sibling, adult Billy is pretty much what you’d expect of a 14 year-old with unlimited power: tests his limits, buys alcohol and secures money using dubious means. Almost makes you wish they’d put Hanks in the costume.

Sadly, this is just half of the movie. There is evil to be battled. It’s obvious action scenes aren’t where Shazam’s lightning-badged heart is — the fight scenes are perfunctory, with flares of tonal dissonance. CGI monster scraps rarely lead to actual excitement, and since the seven deadly sins look like Ludo from Labyrinth on a bad day, it’s hard to care. At least Strong is a good sport who brings some pathos to his otherwise run-of-the-mill megalomaniac.

Director David F. Sandberg — better known for his horror movies Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation — has comedy chops, but his action movie bag of tricks needed to be packed at a check-out lane allowing more items.

As for the dubious mixture of Greek and Christian mythos, best not to think much about it.

I’d give Shazam! a pass on the corniness of the “you can choose your own family” angle (blood relatives are truly awful in this flick), even though it hammers at it more than a Fast and the Furious movie. That said and other gripes notwithstanding, Shazam is an unassuming breath of fresh air — especially after the portentous goings-on in that other cinematic universe.