The best thing one can say about Shazam! is that, following on the fins of the wonderfully extravagant and amazingly stupid Aquaman, the latest DC movie is one more sign to assure the proletariat that the imprint has permanently dislodged its head from the asshole of Zack Snyder’s Murderverse. While Wonder Woman mused that, hey, maybe a DC movie need not labor over traumatized backstories and hypermasculinized mommy issues, and Aquaman suggested that blockbuster movies can have things like “color” and “humor,” Shazam! synthesizes those mommy issues into a positive treatise on family, doubling down on the jokes and bright primary colors. If only Shazam! were as much a herald as its forebears, for better or ill, a sign of something new and exciting to come. It’s not. It is, despite its surprisingly gruesome violence, little more than another superhero movie that will make more money than the GDP of a small island nation. It’s pretty good.
The plot, by-the-numbers, floats somewhere between a Spielberg coming-of-age adventure, a Big reboot and a late-’80s horror comedy—think The Monster Squad in that it’s intended for kids but is too old for its ostensible demographic. Perma-foster-kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) reluctantly ends up in possession of powers bestowed to him by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou, just here for the craft service) that transform him into an Adonis (Zachary Levi) whenever he says the wizard’s name, which also happens to be the title of the movie. Shazam’s spent decades looking for a replacement, knowing that because his powers are waning he needs someone to take up the mantle of protecting the universe from the Seven Deadly Sins (manifest as sub-Resident Evil ghouls bearing way too much bad CGI resemblance to the cancerous testicle that was Doomsday in Batman v Superman), but can’t find anyone suitably “pure of heart.” Billy is definitely not that, but due to a series of unfortunate events, must rise to the challenge of being a devastatingly handsome white adult heterosexual man with Superman-adjacent powers and invulnerability.
Meanwhile, Billy’s placed in a group home following a run-in with Philadelphia police, which means that in the DCEU there is a Philadelphia but there is also a Metropolis and a Gotham and a Central City, and nothing matters. Under the parentage of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans), Billy grows close to his ersatz family, especially to Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a self-described superhero obsessive who guides Billy through his new array of deific powers as Shazam. Freddy of course knows that having loved ones is a liability for a burgeoning hero, giving potential arch-nemeses easy bargaining tools should it come to that—it always comes to that—and it isn’t long before Billy must mature into his new role in order to save his family from Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong, extremely here for this shit), former Shazam reject but imbued with the Rock of Eternity, through which the Seven Deadly Sins are finally able to break free of Shazam’s righteous incarceration. Similar to Batman, Dr. Sivana goes on an indiscriminate killing spree, which makes him at least as powerful as any villain any member of the Justice League has faced, though not notable enough to warrant the appearance of any other DC hero (at least when it matters).
Leaning real hard into the jokes about horny teenage boys and meta-skewerings of superhero films, Shazam! can’t help but comment on its genre ad nauseam, though, unlike Deadpool, it never risks arguing against its own existence. It’s, more often than not, a very funny movie, and Grazer’s got some flawless comic timing. Still, that winking nature grows stale quickly and then completely sinks any weight Shazam!’s drama hoped to build by making all stakes seem comparatively trite. It’s important to a late-film reveal that Billy’s family become fully involved in fighting Dr. Sivana, but after witnessing Sivana’s demons completely eviscerate a board room’s worth of adult human beings/capitalists, Billy’s siblings never seem like they’re in all that much trouble. Surely the best way to succeed would be for Dr. Sivana to just kill those kids; why would any literal embodiment of sin hold back when there’s no functional reason to do so? Though it admirably shines in the spirit of the Captain Marvel comics on which it’s based, Shazam!—like so much of this drastically re-imagined DC universe—can’t quite decide what it wants to do at any one time, swiping between comedy and something much more sinister. Any warm and cozy feeling it dredges up from our desensitized heart-shaped organs rarely registers. At least Joss Whedon isn’t punching up the script.
Likewise, director David F. Sandberg (known for no-budget horror successes) demonstrably has little interest in action setpieces, mostly relying on the DCEU template of “superhumans throw each other through skyscrapers,” which may or may not be a comment on its own cinematic universe. Who knows anymore? His visual sense is also frustratingly static—competent but lacking Snyder’s pure iconism or James Wan’s splendor or Patty Jenkins’ economy, replete with a color palette that mostly amounts to “visible.”
Still, a superhero film with a budget under $100M is a (sigh—sorry, Mom) refreshing development for the genre, and a diverse cast is always welcome, even if headlined by Zachary Levi, who must realize how goddamn lucky he is to get the one remaining superhero role where it conceptually pays off to be a generically attractive white guy. Whether that’s faint praise or not, it hardly matters; Shazam! will make back its budget opening weekend.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Djimon Hounsou
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.