There’s a lot of buzz about Shazam! for being the first DC Extended Universe movie that has a healthy sense of humor. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the audience’s exhaustion from grim years of Bats and Supes that the DCEU gives an individual filmmaker the freedom to do whatever he wants. DC initially tried to catch up with Marvel in too much of a hurry, but in crashing and burning, the studio may have created an opening for something all its own. The triumph of Wonder Woman, and the pure spectacle of Aquaman, feel like they were made by people with coherent visions rather than committees.
Shazam! follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel as a teen, Zachary Levi as an adult), a foster child known for running away from families in pursuit of his birth mother. After defending his foster brother from bullies, he is summoned by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become the champion needed to stop the seven deadly sins. By saying the wizard’s name, Shazam, Billy is able to transform into a near-invincible grown-up version of himself with seemingly limitless superpowers. At the same time, he must stop Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who as a child was a candidate to be Shazam’s champion but was rejected for not being pure of heart. Thaddeus spent his life in pursuit of this wizard to prove his worth, harnessing the power of the Sins to dominate the world, with only Shazam standing in his way.
As a movie, Shazam! is fine. It spends the same amount of time doing things well as it spends not doing them well. The funny parts are usually funny, but there’s only so many laughs you can squeeze from a guy yelling “Lightning hands!” while shooting lightning from his hands before you wish he’d get to the next gag. The sincere moments are reliably the best moments of the movie, with Billy’s foster siblings as a definite highlight. This dimension brings Shazam! closer (than any modern comic movie) to capturing the fact that superheroes were created as escapist fantasies by people who felt alienated in their youth. The action is mostly serviceable but always far too long, with genuine thrills few and far between. The villain is certainly threatening, and David F. Sandberg’s background in horror shows through in the creature design.
Perhaps the biggest drawback is how much time Shazam! spends giggling at itself, a major drawback of 2011’s Green Lantern, which is said to be the source of DC’s longstanding “no jokes” rule, and many of the “I know, right?!” and “Shazam is a stupid word” punchlines can’t help but recall that disaster, though Shazam! is a better movie overall. And this may be nitpicking for a movie this lighthearted, but Angel and Levi do not feel like the same person. Levi is a fine comic actor, but his performance feels like a generalized teenager in an adult body, not this teenager. This is not a dealbreaker, but it does stop Shazam! from being a great movie instead of just a successful one. Despite these, it’s a net good that superhero movies are lightening the hell up already, and Shazam! is hopefully a sign of good things to come.
PG-13, 132 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal
Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213, regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.
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