Rarely is a film so aptly and succinctly summed up by a title as brief and simple as Shazam!. It’s a film bursting with camp ridiculousness and childish whimsy, and a heavy heaping of cheese that saves it from sinking below the weight of a genre that’s already incredibly saturated, but somehow hasn’t quite been done to death yet. It’s become just as tedious to hear complaints about the tedium of superhero movies as it is to see the films themselves, but somehow heroes like this keep finding a way to diversify themselves, to stand out from a huge crowd.
Shazam! somehow doesn’t feel like it belongs in one of the established enormously-connective cinematic universes, despite being deeply immersed in the lore of DC’s pantheon. Like Aquaman before it, the film is clearly a part of the greater DC Cinematic story but is blissfully independent from the goings-on in Gotham or Metropolis. Shazam! manages to inhabit its own space, acting as a film, not a piece of a greater connective tissue. Perhaps it’s the unabashed nature of the frequent references to Superman or Batman that make it feel so refreshingly disconnected from those characters. Our hero’s friend and sidekick Freddy is as in love with these caped crusaders as their real-life fans are, lending the film a certain amount of resonance with our own world of fandom and obsession with heroes.
Whilst the film certainly sets itself apart from its ‘competition’ in tone and stakes however, it often doesn’t feel quite as consistent as it could be. Elements of comedy and action, and even the occasional splash of horror from genre mainstay David Sandberg, generally blend together well and don’t appear too jarring, but plenty of the beats just fail to land. It’s all wrapped up in an aesthetic that can be either refreshingly quaint or surprisingly amateurish, depending on how you feel about the directorial style of Sandberg, who made his name through low-budget horror shorts on YouTube. The genre’s usual plague of immediately dated and frustratingly inconsistent visual effects are as present as ever, too.
The film is as pure-hearted and well-intentioned as it can be, but its story cues are often so familiar and overdone that even the central dramatic through-line becomes so predictable it loses most of its impact. The film is slow to pick up, and the first act suffers greatly from a somewhat disjointed series of dramatic or comedic set-pieces that don’t quite come together until the title character comes to save the day, as well as the film.
Zachary Levi’s Shazam is a delight, bringing a youthful innocence to the role unbecoming of the usual roster of muscle-bound heroes, but just like the young Billy Batson, it may take some time to warm to the supporting cast of his foster family. The charming family dynamic takes a while to settle into a steady rhythm, but once it does, the supporting players are every bit as wholesome and lovable as our hero. Mark Strong delivers a characteristically bombastic performance as the film’s menacing Dr. Sivana too, even if the character likely won’t leave much of a lasting impression.
Shazam! is a film that you’ll get as much out of as you’re willing to accept. It wears the absurdity of the whole affair on its sleeve, and whilst cynical genre stalwarts might end up thinking it doesn’t go far enough, you’d be hard-pressed to find a child leaving the cinema not screaming their champion’s name. Shazam! will make you laugh, it’ll make you cringe and maybe even occasionally frustrate you, but by the time the credits roll, you’ll almost definitely be having a lot of fun.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.