Magic, superheroes, and irreverence would on paper spell intrigue for a modern DC universe film romp, but like the superhero himself, Shazam! masquerades as a comical take on the superhero formula, with every action plagued by some deep-rooted immaturity that pedantically affects every spark or flicker of filmmaking wizardry. Attempts at deconstruction or satire never offer any worthwhile critiques, but instead come across as cheap shots by a comedy superhero movie desperate for cred — like youthful naiveté trying its hardest to pass for full fledged adulthood. Though its errors and missteps are forgivable due to its prospects — primarily, a comedic lean that allows for a fun atmosphere to act as guardian against the film’s shortcomings — Shazam! still feels under-cooked, stumbling like a kid where it should be sashaying like a hero.
In a curveball opener, the story begins with a young Dr. Sivana — the movie’s villain — and his first encounter with an old wizard called Shazam, who is searching for a “pure of heart” child to take on his powers and continue the battle against evil, as well as keep the Seven Deadly Sins encased in stone in his otherworldly realm. It’s a scenario that instantly creates empathy towards the young doctor (and also his older self, played by Mark Strong), but beyond this point he is relegated to a more steady downward shift into bad guy territory. Things pick up in the modern day, with rebellious foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) determined to find his lost mother (easily setting up the central conflict for the character); after another failed attempt, he reluctantly joins a large home of friendly caregivers and eccentric orphans, setting things up nicely for forward momentum drama. While a now adult Dr. Sivana closes in on finding the wizard from his youth, the decaying wizard Shazam is desperate to find his champion to pass along his powers.
Embracing the absurdity, Shazam! plows headfirst into a light-hearted journey through comic book film tropes, as well as all the buffoonery a 14 year-old magically turning into an adult superhero would offer. It’s fundamentally a fun movie with likable characters that adheres to classic hero tradition; there’s a dichotomy between protagonist/antagonist, an underlying character flaw that is persistent in generating conflict, and a fun premise that seems like it was inspired by the whimsical notebook scribblings of a middle schooler. Ready and cocked to storm onto the DC movie scene with a “Say my name!” kind of charisma, the film instead buckles under the weight of its own levity, delivering a comical “pow” emblazoned on a white flag dangling from the end of a toy gun that might as well signify surrender.
The film feels like a prime stallion ready to win the race and cross the finish line, but handled with apathy. A lot of the humor is as fleeting as an internet dance craze — energetic and ridiculous, but a bit too self-aware. Audience members may find themselves laughing, but awkward deliveries and boring camera usage makes the whole thing feel a bit stilted and thrown together, lacking the refinement that the film’s comedy focus necessitates. Some good gags struggle to leave their mark with many botched and predictable punch lines; the comedy has a one-and-done “move on with your life” feel to it. The audacious premise begs for a greater triumphant confidence to the hilarity, but only occasionally does it touch the heights of silly teenage power fantasy — to the detriment of its comedy and fizzled out action sequences alike.
The lack of action set pieces will raise some eyebrows, as the new, ultra-powerful Shazam (Zachary Levi – who is perfect for the role) doesn’t have a chance to show off the majesty of ancient dimension warping magic, creating rather tame action moments that run counter to the expectations of a roided-out teenager. His powers are used more for humor than anything else, and at no point does it really feel like Shazam is exerting himself; there are no battle cries or moments where he must dig deep to find that edge to distinguish himself — to show something that makes Billy Batson seem truly unique and heroic amongst the everyman (everyboy). As Shazam comically discovers new powers or confronts Dr. Sivana, the excitement rises in anticipation for the large-scale level of city destruction that DC action movies are known to be capable of, but it all dissolves into anti-climactic exchanges which disappoint time and again.
Contrary to expectation, however, the character of Shazam is handled well both by Zachary Levi’s adult interpretation and Asher Angel’s stand-out portrayal of his 14 year old self. Moments of pathos are earned through careful development and consideration for the film’s themes, and at least for Billy Batson himself, Shazam! creates a perfect origin story for this kid-turned-superhero.
Striking like lightning in moments of brilliance and lighthearted warmth, only to cease without the reception of thunder, Shazam! concludes its just-over-two-hours run with an exuberant complacency. The perfectly serviceable elements of comedy, action, coming-of-age antics, and heroics aren’t hard to find better executed in other superhero films; here, the lackluster execution culminates in a fresh direction for DC movies that wastes its youth on the young.