Shazam! Enjoyable movie – shame they didn’t know when to stop

Review: Too many asides and extended punch-ups drag this past the two-hour mark

The official trailer for Shazam!, starring Zachary Levi. Video: Warner Bros.

The main gag is Billy’s unease in not just the body of a man, but also that of a being who can shoot lightning from his fingers and leap buildings

Film Title: Shazam!

Director: David F Sandberg

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand

Genre: Action

Running Time: 131 min

Fri, Apr 5, 2019, 05:00

   

It seems as if DC movies really have turned a corner towards the sunnier side of Little Spielbergia. The literal and figurative darkness in Zack Snyder flicks such as Batman Vs Superman – part Ayn Rand, part Magic Roundabout – has been replaced by something less pretentious.

Wonder Woman was a hoot. Aquaman was off the leash. Now the universe moves on to something like a family film from the dying years of the first Bush administration.

Shazam! does outstay its welcome. It’s not fully comfortable in its fictional universe. But there’s nothing here a decent person could actively hate.

David Sandberg’s picture concerns a teenager, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), in overcast Philadelphia, who somehow-or-other gains the ability to transform into an adult superhero with Batman’s jaw and a circus strongman’s leotard.

The surrounding lore is too confusing to bother disentangling, but Mark Strong (embarrassed a decade ago in Old Testament DC’s Green Lantern) plays a disappointed bad guy who engineers connections with monsters representing the seven deadly sins.

Djimon Hounsou is an ancient wizard with the power to pass the gifts of Shazam on to successive generations. You can imagine the sort of guff.

Big reference

The main gag in a film that leans mostly towards comedy is Billy’s unease in not just the body of a man, but also that of a being who can shoot lightning from his fingers and leap buildings with a single bound.

The film-makers have the good manners to explicitly reference Big in a later sequence, but there is little of that film’s interest in the biological and social challenges of adulthood. As a superhero, Shazam (butch Zachary Levi) is not part of everyday society and can ascribe his weirdness to hyper-powered otherness.

The film never feels at home on a planet that has (presumably) accommodated itself to the presence of Batman and Superman. Both are present in the conversation, but they seem implausibly peripheral figures. It requires another leap of faith to absorb all the sketchily drawn quasi-mythological baloney. 

The action is, however, perfectly satisfactory when at ground level. Apparently abandoned by his mother in a hasty prologue – that subplot feels loosely tacked on to the narrative spine – Billy grows up in a foster home with a bunch of oddball kids and a pair of forgiving parents.

His best friend turns out to be a disabled nerd called Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who, as someone always will in knowing superhero flicks, exhibits an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things comic-book. Freddy is thus able to talk Billy (or Shazam) through his potential superpowers. Can he fly? Does he have X-ray vision? Those sorts of things.

A bit of grit

The gentle inclination to diversity is welcome and the anchoring in Philadelphia (even if Toronto mostly stands in for that city) adds unexpected grittiness to a flashy entertainment.

The humour sometimes skirts the scatological, and some of the violence may upset smaller viewers, but there is a sense that Sandberg and his writers are working for a general audience of kids and not for a cabal of pernickety fans. The history of Shazam is out there for those who care. (Incidentally, I’m assuming the character doesn’t take the title’s exclamation point.)

It’s a shame they didn’t know when to stop. Too many uninteresting asides and too many extended punch-ups drag Shazam! past the two-hour mark. It’s a decent film, but it is, thank goodness, not important. 

In an era when entertainments set at Christmas now always open at Christmas, some attendees may also be puzzled by all the trees, baubles and Santa Clauses. It looks as if Aquaman nudged the film a few months away from its intended release date.

No matter. Gremlins was released in June, you know. Not that Shazam! is any Gremlins.

Opens on April 5th