Ever since Christopher Nolan reintroduced the world to Batman a decade and a half ago, DC has been the dark, broody option in superhero films, with almost no levity in sight. With DC slowly moving away from its extended universe and telling more individual stories like last year’s Aquaman and the upcoming Joker, DC gets to play around with their characters in a way that seems prime to make them more experimental that their Marvel rivals, for better or worse.
For DC’s first superhero film that doesn’t directly correlate with the Justice League since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, DC has released Shazam!, a comedic take on the genre that plays like Big, but if Tom Hanks turned into an adult superhero. Instead of showing that DC can branch out of their murky action wheelhouse, Shazam! shows that DC is just as bad at comedy and lighthearted fare.
Shazam! stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, a teenager who has been passed around in foster care for years, all while Batson tries to find his mother who lost him as a carnival years ago. In his latest foster home full of quirky kids, he meets Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is obsessed with superheroes. After standing up to Freddy’s bullies as school one day, Billy is transported by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who is looking for a pure-of-heart successor. The wizard gives Billy the power to turn into an adult superhero (played by Zachary Levi) whenever he says the word “Shazam!”
Shazam! is at its most charming as Billy and Freddy attempt to discover what Billy’s newfound powers actually are, but it’s just as fun when Billy is experimenting in a Big-ish way with simply now having the superpower of being an adult. Watching Billy try to buy beer or go to a strip club is just as enjoyable as him attempting to fly or become invisible. But the playing around with his powers soon comes to an end when Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) – who as a boy originally failed the wizard’s test – seeks to destroy the new Shazam.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, who previously made the horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, makes Shazam! into a tonally spastic film. Sandberg balances the playfulness of Billy’s examination of his own powers with the insane darkness of Dr. Sivana, who utilizes the Seven Deadly Sins as his sort of henchmen. Even the Seven Deadly Sins, which could’ve been visually interesting, are almost indistinguishable from each other and remind of the villains of DCEU films past. Sivana is so overly villainous – especially with his gem in place of one of his eyes that holds the Seven Deadly Sins – that the tone of Shazam! plays darker than it should. The way that Sivana and his team of sins indiscriminately kill people who come in his way just isn’t a good balance to the more comical tone coming from the hero.
But Sandberg also makes the foster home dynamic similar to an obnoxious sitcom for kids. Mix that with a relatively bland origin story, a toothless superhero parody of sorts and the ridiculously dark violence of the villains, Shazam! is all over the place in terms of what this film is trying to be. Even the comedy of Shazam! is mostly rough, and the majority of jokes fall incredibly flat, with only a handful of moments causing actual laughs. The film’s writers Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) and Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) are clearly more used to a younger audience, but the jokes that miss far outweigh the ones that land.
At the very least, Levi is quite fun as a kid trapped in a superhero’s body, and equally, Angel is solid as a teenager presented with an immense amount of responsibility. Also strong is scene-stealer Faithe Herman, who plays the youngest foster child Darla, and the final fight of the film does provide the opportunity for a particularly amusing addition who will certainly be a larger part of the eventual sequel. But far too often, the cast is simply playing slight variations of characters they’re already known for. Grazer is just a more hyper and irritating of his It character, and Strong isn’t doing anything new that can’t be seen in his countless other villain roles.
DC should absolutely play around with their formula and see what works for them instead of diving headfirst into bad decisions like they have in the past. While DC does try to make Shazam! their own Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of injecting silliness into the superhero genre, it instead becomes an ambitious, muddled mess, calling back to their previous missteps.