In the immortal words — make that word — of Gomer Pyle, USMC: Shazam! (**1/2 out of four).
The second Captain Marvel movie to be released this spring (yup, this character was originally known by that name from his creation in 1939 until his rebranding in 1972), DC’s valiant effort doesn’t soar as high as its Marvel counterpart, though there’s still a hefty amount to enjoy in this thematically loose-limbed undertaking. Whereas the DCU has often been criticized for its why-so-serious approach to mythmaking, it’s obvious the suits have finally opted to take a hint, injecting a light amount of humor into Wonder Woman, a sizable amount of humor into Aquaman, and now a gargantuan amount of humor into Shazam! It’s an appreciated gesture in most circles, though I personally didn’t mind the darker underpinnings in past DC flicks (particularly Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy). At any rate, it’s not like DC is reinventing the wheel here, as even a cursory glance at Marvel opuses like, say, Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok can attest.
Djimon Hounsou, who’s been appearing in superhero sagas with almost as much regularity as Chris Evans (he previously popped up in Captain Marvel, Aquaman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even as the title hero in an animated Black Panther TV show), here sets the story in motion as an elderly wizard who needs to bestow his formidable powers onto someone worthy of them. He bypasses young Thaddeus Sivana back in the mid-70s and instead waits until now, when he believes he has found a true champion in Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster boy who shares a home with disabled comic-book fan Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and other good-hearted kids. Whenever he utters the word “Shazam,” Billy turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) whose formidable powers include, umm… Neither Billy nor Freddy are sure, so cue the amusing sequences in which the pair attempt to determine exactly what Shazam can do. (Turn invisible? Stop bullets? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?)
Meanwhile, the now adult Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has spent his life trying to attain the power that was within his grasp as a child, although he has no plans to use it for the betterment of mankind. To be fair, Billy isn’t exactly displaying heroic qualities, either, as he’s more interested in attaining fame and fortune — or at least ample YouTube hits and a few quarters tossed at his feet as he shows off his awesome super-tricks.
Shazam! is good for some laughs, but in an increasingly crowded landscape in which superheroes are allowed to be philosophical, guilt-ridden, godlike, and even meta (what up, Deadpool?), there’s something comparatively puny about this film. Its drama (particularly the familial material) feels warmed-over, its conflicts feel boilerplate, and the majority isn’t quite bright enough or inventive enough to overcome a third act free-for-all that involves numerous superbeings and demonic entities slugging it out in a repetitive CGI loop that neither illuminates nor entertains.
Shazam! is endearing enough to earn an ever-so-modest recommendation, but it’s hardly the final word in superhero splendor writ large.