There’s a clever self-depricating TV spot for the new DCEU film Shazam! where the narrator says “Shazam! is the best superhero film since… last month.” The obvious subtext there is that the advertising campaign is admitting upfront that this movie probably isn’t going to dominate public attention like last month’s Captain Marvel or next month’s Avengers: Endgame but they still want you to pay attention to it. I’m not sure that audiences were all that amused by this approach given that the movie is underperforming and at its current pace will probably be the lowest grossing DC movie to date but it is a surprisingly honest assessment of how much of an onslaught of back to back superheroes modern cinema-going feels like. The oversaturation makes it so that movies like Shazam!, which could have seemed at least a bit more novel in their small innovations had it come out even five years ago now just kind of seems like one more of these things. That said I do think that TV ad was a bit overly modest because, while Shazam! has its problems it actually probably is better than Captain Marvel and would be more accurately be called “the best superhero film since… December.”
Shazam! opens in 1974 with a young child sitting in the backseat of a car suddenly getting whisked away via sorcery and finding himself in a cave meeting the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who summoned him. He’s tested and quickly proves himself unworthy of getting powers from this wizard and is sent back to the car, where his resulting freakout causes a major car accident. Cut to the present, where this young boy has grown to be Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), member of a wealthy family and obsessed with this childhood experience. He eventually finds a way to enter the cave himself and ends up freeing seven monsters that the wizard has been trying to contain. As such the wizard is forced to bring another youth in to pass his powers to and hope the selection works. As fate would have it, the young man he brings in is a rambunctious 14 year old orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who has just moved into a new foster family. The wizard gives him the powers and sends him away and from that moment on this kid turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) every time he says the word “Shazam.”
Shazam is a title that’s a little different from most of the movies that Marvel and DC have been bringing out as he is a much older character than most of the ones that have been populating theaters lately. While most of Marvel’s heroes (with the exception of Captain America) are the product of Stan Lee’s work in the 60s, Shazam is more of the generation of 1930s heroes like Batman and Superman. Unlike those iconic heroes however, Shazam (I won’t muddle things by referring to him by that other name) got caught in some legal shenanigans between his publisher (Fawcett) and DC and as such he didn’t really gradually evolve with the times and actually disappeared from shelves for a while before DC ended up buying him and bringing him back in the 70s as a rather nostalgia driven property. So we’re dealing with a rather old fashioned character still rooted in pulp iconography and undiluted by some of the more cynical ideas that even Superman has had to engage with. I bring all this up because, in some ways, this new film adaptation of the Shazam property seems interested in embracing some of the cheesier aspects of the character. They do nothing to change the costume and they certainly play up the “child in a superhero’s body” aspects of the story.
The odd thing is, the hero himself and some of the related aspects of his powers like the wizard of the cave are in some ways the only aspects of the film that are really trying to embrace that camp value and a lot of the other elements of the film are updated and adapted in more conventional ways. Billy Batson has been aged up a bit and rather than being some kind of “Gee Whiz!” kid out of a Golden Age comic book he’s a somewhat streetwise and wounded from his abandonment by his mother. It’s a pretty good updated actually and I found myself fairly entertained just by his non-hero demeanor and with his integration into the foster family. The problem is that this version of Batson seems kind of removed from the “Big” routine that Zachary Levi is doing, which would seem to line up more with the personality of the traditional Billy Batson (or perhaps the MCU’s Peter Parker) than the moodier version of the character depicted here. On top of that, a lot of the action and filmmaking here is not necessarily adjusted to match the cheery demeanor of the superhero at its center. I was kind of expecting this to be more PG than the average superhero flick but it turned out to be about as violent in some scenes as other DC movies like Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. The guy who directed it is probably most famous for making horror movies and you can see some elements of that here and I think he may have been an odd choice for a movie that would seem to call for more of a Spielbergian childhood whimsy.
So, when it comes to Shazam! I’m left to come back to what I was saying earlier about this being an over-saturated superhero market. I’ve seen a lot of these movies recently and frankly I probably would have skipped this one if I didn’t essentially get into it for free as part of a ticket subscription service. We’ve just reached a point where it’s kind of hard to surprise people with any of these movies. Stuff that could have felt original ten years ago like, say, a teenage superhero immediately trying to show off their powers on Youtube, might have seemed like a unique take ten years ago but now we’ve seen that scene in everything from the movie Chronicle to the show “Heroes.” This one might have a little more than usual going for it and I did mostly enjoy watching it but at the same time I found its tonal messiness to be a bit hard to forgive, and in a world where there are so many different options for super hero cinema it’s hard to really get excited for anything that doesn’t really go above and beyond.
*** out of Five