Jeff Turner is a runner for the Alamo Drafthouse at Midtown. Special Thanks to the Alamo for screening “Shazam!” for Jeff in advance.
Discussion over superhero fatigue is fiercer now than it perhaps ever has been. It has become clear that if they do not have to, Marvel Studios will not abandon the formula they’ve spent over a decade establishing. With DC’s contrasting cinematic universe beginning to take off with the critical and box office success of “Wonder Woman” and the box office success of “Aquaman”, comic book movies are beginning to hit a critical mass. It’s hard to believe that this momentum is sustainable, and many wonder when the genre will go the way of the Western. One has to wonder what happens to a movie like “Shazam!”; a film that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but executes all of the tried and true genre tropes with aplomb. “Shazam!” is a boilerplate effort bolstered by a great script and strong performances from an incoming cast of newcomers.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster child looking for his mother who abandoned him. He does not get along with his new family, but after running from bullies, he is recruited by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to do battle with a demon possessed doctor (Mark Strong). He becomes Shazam! (Zachary Levi, in the best performance of the film), and has a large library of powers ranging from shooting lightning to flying to super speed.
Whenever a superhero movie feels a need to insert jokes, it’ll often feel forced and it will completely break and stop the flow of the movie. This happens in the MCU all the time. What stands out about “Shazam!” is how often it is truly, genuinely funny. The movie operates on, to coin a phrase, ‘Ghostbusters humor’, where the movie is silly and goofy but all of the actors are playing their roles straight. A lot of the real big laughs come from Levi, whose adolescent delivery is persuasive and pitch perfect. Levi’s been acting since NBC’s “Chuck”, almost a decade ago, and his timing is so crafted and on point, it’s hard to believe that this is liable to be his star making turn.
The nice thing about “Shazam!” is how comfortable it is going dark. Director David F. Samberg uses his horror credentials to offer up some truly horrifying imagery, often evoking Sam Raimi’s work on his “Spider-Man” trilogy. The movie has a clever metatext running through it, with Strong’s villain still bitter that the wizard did not give him the “Shazam” powers, and Batson performing as a man in his thirties despite being in middle school in actuality. There’s an argument to be had here that this is a subtle jab (or love letter?) to the comic book movie consumer, the hero and the villain are both technical and literal manchildren that are primarily enamored with how cool the idea of superpowers are.
If the movie has issues, it’s that it moves too quickly. While Strong’s character is interesting, we don’t actually spend that much time with him. On top of that it truly does abide by the superhero structure to a tee, which is going to be understandably boring to people. There’s also a lovely cameo at the end used to bring the movie into the DCEU, where Superman appears, however Henry Cavill’s exit from the franchise has apparently forced the studio to recut the scene, and the moment is weaker because of it. It’s easy to see what Samberg wanted to do here, too, which is undoubtedly sad.
“Shazam!” is the textbook definition of a ‘pretty good’ movie, if a binary choice between “Shazam!” and March’s “Captain Marvel” was forced upon me, “Shazam!” is the clear and easy choice. It wears its heart on its sleeve, with a cast of often loveable characters. It’s a hit.