Shazam! review – kid-friendly DC adventure is enjoyably old school

The traditionally dour cinematic universe is given a much-needed jolt of energy in a light-hearted yet overly long mash-up of Big and Superman

If there’s one thing that DC’s cinematic universe needs it’s better lighting. Or wait, on reflection, maybe it’s smarter scripts. Or hang on, perhaps it’s more coherent action scenes. Or actually, you know what, it’s the removal of Zack Snyder from every conceivable creative and technical level. Oh yeah, so it was just the one thing, right, well in that case it would be a drastically lighter tone. Taking all the wrong lessons from Christopher Nolan’s mostly sublime, game-changing Dark Knight trilogy, the DC extended universe (DCEU) has been defined by dirge, a glum, self-important string of downers without the requisite heft to justify the unbearably oppressive tone.

Audiences grew weary fast and mammoth opening weekends turned into rapidly, embarrassingly diminishing returns. It led to a minor internal rehaul with Wonder Woman adding a modicum of levity before last year’s Aquaman embraced the character’s kitschier elements, becoming their biggest global hit to date. But both, for me, were still pale comparisons to even Marvel’s lesser offerings and the company remains in need of a more radical left turn, a brighter light to shine through all of the aggressive darkness.

Shazam, previously known as Captain Marvel before legal intervention, is a hero whose story has plagued DC’s cinematic arm for years, multiple aborted iterations littered along the way, with the late, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman once involved in a draft in the early 2000s. In need of another surefire hit, both with audiences and critics, he’s been dragged out of development hell and handed to Swedish director David F Sandberg, whose prior work has been more horror-focused, but whose vision for the film errs closer to something Amblin would have made in the 80s. Maybe it’s the Stranger Things effect, one of the many pop culture references made in Earth to Echo writer Henry Gayden’s zippy script, but there’s something engagingly old school about both the film’s tone and visuals.

Aimed at a far younger audience than any DCEU film to date, Shazam! actually starts off with a cold open that reminds us of Sandberg’s more adult-leaning genre roots (at one point later on, there’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo for the evil doll from his Conjuring spinoff Annabelle: Creation) as we travel back to the 70s to see the origin of Doctor Sivana, first seen as an embittered child who grows up to face the titular hero. From the outset, there’s a comfortable grasp of what the film is and who it’s for, base level skills that were missing from Batman v Superman, Justice League and Suicide Squad, Sandberg managing to outdo far more experienced directors by doing the bare minimum.

Fast forward to the present and we meet wayward teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who bounces between foster homes, trying to track down the mother he was separated from as a child. After being placed with an eager makeshift family, he remains resistant to any form of attachment but finds himself in need of a confidante after a wizard blesses him with superheroic powers. The word “shazam” causes him to magically turn into a cape-wearing adult (Zachary Levi), leading to a whole host of new problems.

Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer in Shazam!
Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer in Shazam! Photograph: Steve Wilkie/Steve Wilkie/DC Comics

Buoyant and unpretentious, Shazam! aims low and mostly succeeds, a kid-friendly caper powered with enough energy to keep its target audience engaged with a fun central conceit that plays like a cross between Big and Superman. Levi, whose work has mostly graced the small screen from Chuck to the most recent season of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, has a puppyish charm, launching himself into the role with total abandon. As his villainous counterpart, Mark Strong has less to work with, stuck with a rather rote bad guy role and despite the film’s indulgent two-hour-plus running time, the pair’s antagonistic dynamic feels undercooked.

Because while Shazam! might avoid many of the pitfalls that usually define DCEU offerings, there remains an insistence that more is more and since this is essentially a kids movie, dragging the plot out to a flabby 132 minutes is a staggering misjudgment. The finale, while admirably self-contained and small-scale, grinds on for far too long, a boring escalation of anti-climaxes that cumulatively dull the intended emotional impact. It’s a film in need of a tighter edit with a script in need of a sharper polish, an imperfect franchise-launcher that nonetheless represents significant progress for DC.

  • Shazam! is released on 5 April


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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