“Shazam!” Tries and Fails to Make a Forgotten Hero New Again

When I was around 10 years old, I had a vivid dream in which I could fly. I was so convinced by it that when I woke up, I jumped off my bed, spread-eagle, and knocked the wind out of my lungs when I hit the ground. Sadly, this is an apt metaphor for “Shazam!”, a movie in which a troublemaking kid is selected by a dying wizard to be the “champion” who will inherit both his great powers and — you guessed it — his great responsibility. The responsibility comes in because the old wizard is losing the strength required to keep the seven deadly sins — personified as grotesque monsters that look like unfinished computer-generated imagery projects — captured in stone, where they have apparently been trapped for thousands of years.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a Philadelphia foster kid who’s run away from 23 homes in search of his biological mother, commits one semi-brave act among a number of mean ones, at which point the wizard apparently decides he’s got what it takes and gives Billy all of his powers. From then on, Billy shouts “Shazam!” to turn into a jacked adult in a silly costume who has an array of superpowers almost as stacked as Superman’s.

Illustration by Cate Johnson

This premise actually has a strong emotional kernel, since it hits on not only the desire to become a superhero, but also on a more complex feeling kids have — that adults refuse to take them seriously simply because they’re kids. Billy gets a reprieve from no one taking him (or his quest to find his mother) seriously when he’s welcomed into a foster home by parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) who have a wild, spunky foster family. Billy reluctantly shares a room with Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer), a DC super-nerd with an endearing mix of sarcasm and unabashed eagerness. As soon as Billy is rude to this lovable gang, however, it’s clear that however the movie unfolds, the lesson he’s going to learn will be the obvious and simple one: family matters.

It’s not that this theme can’t be done anymore. It’s just that a movie engaging with it needs to bring something more complex than a group hug to the table. (And, since I’d hate to leave you with nothing to watch, this sort of movie is out there: for a better story about an angry kid who learns what it might mean to have a family, watch “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” And if you want a great movie that explores love among an unconventional family, you could see “The Shoplifters.”)

“Shazam!” and its actors do face difficulties inherent to the fact of taking the protagonist and plot from comic books from the ’40s. For instance, Zachary Levi, who plays the adult version of Billy Batson, faces the challenge of playing a kid who’s inherited his adult body. Levi is a charming actor, known best for his starring role in “Chuck,” and he does an admirable but not quite convincing job. Levi comes off so kiddish that he often seems more goofy than his teenage counterpart. By the end, you can’t help but unfavorably compare Levi’s performance to Tom Hanks’ in “Big.” 

There are fewer excuses for the flatness of the villain, the purely evil Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who was deemed unworthy by the wizard many years ago. Thaddeus has since dedicated his life to getting revenge by becoming the champion not of the wizard, but of the monstrous seven deadly sins. Mark Strong is an excellent actor (for instance, in a recent production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge”), but not even he can shake up the predictability of this character. Indeed, Strong, Levi, and even the supporting cast prove a movie-reviewer’s rule of thumb: when a bunch of good actors can’t make a movie convincing, the story must be mediocre at best.

It’s also worth noting what’s going on behind the screen here: a real-life battle for the soul of superheroes in which DC Comics and Marvel Studios are the nominal two sides, but in which their respective parent companies, The Walt Disney Company (which owns Marvel) and AT&T (which owns WarnerMedia, which owns Warner Bros. Pictures, which owns DC) are the actual fighters. Marvel has been on the winning side for years, bringing in hit after hit with the never-ending Avengers series, while DC has produced a number of relative flops. The DC movies have been consistently darker (both visually and emotionally), and “Shazam!” is, more than anything, an attempt by DC to bring some Marvel-like levity to its franchise. 

So this movie is a good example of another rule of thumb: with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, the natures of superhero movies are determined as much by market competition as by artistic choices. This means that most of the movies are largely competing for who can make better escapist, feel-good media. Even on this front, “Shazam!” takes off as if it might succeed and proceeds to hit the ground hard. 

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