If you’re not a comic book aficionado you’ll probably need to do some reading before putting down your money for DC’s latest release, Shazam! It’s not exactly a name up there with other modern day heavy hitters from the DCEU. At one time he was known as Captain Marvel until DC were forced to rebrand in the early 70s. There’s even been a couple of films stretching back to the character’s early heyday of the 40s and 50s.
Wikipedia history lesson aside, Warner Bros. are praying the dark days of Zack Snyder are behind them following the mega-success of Wonder Woman and dazzling mess that was Aquaman (and like WB, we’ll put Justice League aside for now). Jason Momoa’s hairy fish man is a good reference point for the tone Adam F. Sandberg is trying to strike, dismissing the serious stuff in favour of a barrage of jokes. Sandberg is responsible for clunky horrors such as Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation and proves without doubt they were not just early career mistakes.
Certificated as a PG-13, Shazam! knows its age group and shamelessly goes all out to please it. Only slightly older is 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who was abandoned by his mother as a kid and over the years has run away from over 20 foster families trying to find her. After being caught again and placed with another family, he befriends superhero geek, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is also living there with four other kids of differing age.
Meanwhile, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) going by the name of Shazam is desperately searching for someone pure of heart who can absorb his super powers and defeat the seven deadly sins. With time running out he settles on Billy, who takes on his abilities by shouting out “Shazam!” - transforming into a musclebound hero (Zachary Levi). Before all of that we are introduced to the backstory of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a man consumed with evil power and determined to rob Shazam of his strengths.
Sandberg’s film plays it straight out of a retro comic book from the off, painting everything in big bold generic strokes. That includes the humour, which while plentiful, horribly misses the mark almost every time (one look at the writing team will give you a clue as to why). Any sense of wit is largely non-existent, instead going for throwaway lines that might work amongst a group of friends, but fall flat when inserted into a multi-million dollar blockbuster. Good comedy comes from finding hidden humour that isn't immediately apparent. But bar one joke delivered before the start of a mid-air battle, you can see everyone single one coming a mile away.
Running at around two hours, Shazam! lumbers towards a final showdown that seems to drag on for an eternity. Wedged in-between the gags and fish-out-of-water moments we are subjected to Billy’s hokey struggle to find his mother and refusal to accept the warmth of his new foster family. Any similarities to Big are misguided (and Sandberg does make one literal call back to the film) because it lacks a performer with the skill of someone like Tom Hanks who can keep you with them even through the gooey moments.
Mark Strong is usually a character actor you can depend on, but even he seems bored with the pantomime villain material. While he looks the part (definite shades of Vinny Jones at times) it’s a role he’s done a few too many times, and the glint in his right eye is more likely to do with the cheque than anything else. The foster kids are insufferable, especially the youngest, Darla (Faithe Herman), but she’s only 10-years-old and can’t help it if screenwriter Henry Gayden thinks a cutesy, chipmunk voice is enough for laughs. Angel looks uncomfortable in-front of the camera, while Dylan Grazer stands out as the only one worth watching.
Taking all of this into account, people will still flock to see Shazam! It’s obviously aimed at a particular audience so the thoughts of this reviewer are of little consequence, especially given the early preview box office returns. But when you pitch it up against similar superior comic book films like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Ant-Man and the first Deadpool, it pales in comparison. Perhaps a case could be made that there is a good film waiting to burst out of Shazam! but no matter how many times you say the magic word it never makes an appearance.
Shazam! opens nationwide across the UK on April 5th.