By: Kevin Jordan
Tag. You’re it!
If ever a movie was being given a massive pass for not being the next putrid entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Shazam! is it. Currently, it sits at 93% positive critics ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, which ties it for best in the franchise with Wonder Woman. In no universe, including the DCEU, is Shazam! even in the same ballpark as Wonder Woman (which itself was a good, but flawed film). The Los Angeles Times review headline says “’Shazam!’ gives the overworked superhero genre a fun, irreverent lift.” I guess if we are pretending that two Deadpool movies, The Lego Batman Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t exist, that headline is accurate.
(Side note: Not to mention there were a grand total of six super hero movies last year, if we’re not including the three major animated superhero films. That’s less than 1% of all movies released last year, making the superhero movie arguably the least overworked genre in film.)
Or, how about this quote from a review on Common Sense Media – “This refreshingly delightful, lighthearted entry in the DC Extended Universe has enough charm for the whole family thanks to standout performances, broad humor, and positive messages.” Lighthearted? For sure. Delightful? Maybe. Charm for the whole family? Only if the whole family is okay with demons biting people’s heads off. Positive messages? Ummmm, no. Besides the villain throwing his brother through a skyscraper window to plummet to his death, Shazam! features such delightfully positive messages as the hero stealing, imprisoning police officers, visiting strip clubs, and illegally buying alcohol, as well as abusive fathers, abusive siblings, bullying that is literally attempted vehicular manslaughter at one point, and child abandonment. Those are only positive messages if your surname is Manson.
(SPOILERS will be coming as I am not part of that 93%.)
Shazam! is a conventionally bad movie, rather than the cinematic raw sewage that is much of the DCEU, three of the four Transformers sequels, and that Nutcracker movie from last year. To start with, Shazam! is devoid of any kind of coherent plot. The film begins by introducing us to the child version of the eventual villain, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), summoned by an old wizard, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), to Shazam’s lair to be tested for purity of heart. After failing the test, Thad is sent away and told that he will never be worthy and can never return to the lair. Challenge accepted. Years later, grown-up Thad figures out how to get back to the lair, does so, and touches a glowy orb to release the seven deadly sins while Shazam simply looks on (instead of using his magic staff to immediately stop Thad). Wizards, right?
Meanwhile, fourteen-year old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid bouncing from home to home while he searches for his mother. When he was very young, he got separated from her at a carnival and never saw her again. The question of why his mother never found him hangs over this movie like an anvil. Was she kidnapped? Did she have her memory wiped by an evil sorcerer? Was she dead? When the film final answers that question, the anvil crushes your soul with the reveal that she simply abandoned young Billy on a whim. What could be more of an irreverent, delightful lift than a deadbeat mom? Good times.
In between the making of super-villain Thad and worst mom of the century is Billy being summoned by Shazam. Rather than testing Billy for purity of heart, Shazam vomits out some exposition about seven wizards and the deadly sins and a previous champion who went bad and now there is just he, and he is really old and needs a new champion and invites Billy to touch his staff and say his name and oh-my-god-is-all-this-really-necessary and that he is out of time and Billy is “his only option” so…fuck it, Billy is Shazam now and inhabiting an adult, swole body now (Zachary Levi). It’s tough to find lazier writing than that, but then the rest of the movie happened.
Shazam! being a superhero movie, you would expect the standard plot of hero-must-stop-bad-guy-from-executing-his-evil-plan. And what might that evil plan be? Thad wants to take Shazam’s powers even though he already has the same set of powers. That is not a plan. That is barely an action item on a to-do list. And why he is trying to take Shazam’s powers? Because the sin-demons told Thad to destroy Shazam. How that translated into take his powers is beyond me. Especially since Thad exp-vomits during one of their fights that magic can hurt magic. In other words, they can kill each other if they fight. Except, based on the ensuing fights, nuh-uh. And what is the endgame of the demons? I think it is to destroy civilization and, based on our current trajectory under Individual-1, their job is done.
So, if their goal is to kill everyone (and we know how easy that is based on a boardroom slaughter conducted by Thad and friends), why bother with Shazam at all when they already know Shazam is a dumb kid with no training? Or, why doesn’t Thad just kill him one of the multiple times he has the opportunity? Or, if Thad only needs one demon in him to maintain his powers, why aren’t the other six committing genocide? Oh, right, because this is light-hearted family affair.
It isn’t just the plot that is non-existent. Outside of Thad and Billy, the only other character developed beyond a name tag is Billy’s foster-brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). If you didn’t already surmise it from the trailers, Shazam! is what would have happened if the fortune-teller machine in Big had asked Josh to touch her box and say her name. Just like Billy in Big, Freddy is the sidekick that is in on the secret and sharing in the initial joy of being able to partake in adult activities. Unfortunately, rather than developing their relationship beyond testing Shazam for various powers in order to sell the inevitable friend break-up, Shazam! skips straight to the break-up, then immediately jumps into Thad v Shazam. This ensures the audience does not give a shit about any bond the two kids might have had, but does actively turn the audience against the disabled kid (Freddy requires a cane to walk), who started out as kind of a jerk to begin with. Maybe that’s why Individual-1 tried to defund the Special Olympics.
Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were moments during the film where I was laughing and somewhat enjoying myself. The film does manage to hit some punchlines along the Big premise of what a kid would do with superpowers. Captain Sparklefingers and some of the superpower tests were funny bits. But the third act squashed any goodwill I was willing to give the film. Not only do the demons inexplicably refuse to kill anyone (after the boardroom scene), but they are consciously avoiding it. Then, Shazam has a forced moment of recalling that the old wizard said the word heart to him, which translated to Shazam transforming his foster siblings into more Shazams. That’s not even the really dumb part. During the old wizard’s story time, he said there were originally seven wizards protecting the realm. Shazam has five foster siblings. After imbuing them, he breaks the magic staff that allows him to make wizards. You do the math because the writers obviously did not. It also didn’t help that the entire climactic battle played out like a scene that would have been right at home in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze.
Shazam! also manages to hit a couple of pet peeves of mine. One is the aforementioned scene where two bullies literally knock over Freddy with their truck. In front of the school. In front of at least one hundred students. And not one of them calls a teacher, security guard, adult, police, Superman, or Freddy’s mother. There is no way to suspend one’s disbelief of a scene like this. Two, where are all the adults in this school? I recall one single hall security guard. How is it that almost all movies featuring schools manage to have zero teachers or administrators outside of a principal’s office? Three, the student’s ages at this school range from high-school senior to at least second grade. In Philadelphia. Did I say these writers were lazy? Phoning it in is the polite way of describing this mess of a screenplay. And I haven’t even gotten to the multiple continuity errors my friend and I caught on a first viewing, how the fact the demons are seven deadly sins is never used in the plot save for a really bad one-liner from Strong, or how the hero costumes were worse than childish, including how Shazam’s cape looked like a frilly shower curtain someone shrank in the dryer.
The bottom line is Shazam! is not a good movie, nor a particularly funny movie. It has its comedic moments, but they weren’t nearly enough to cover for the action sequences, which were amateur at best. Levi pulls off a likable Shazam and Grazer puts out a solid, if fairly unlikeable Freddy, but the lack of plot or character development keeps the audience from connecting with them. Essentially, Shazam! is what would happen if Hancock (the Will Smith character from 2008’s Hancock) knocked up the pink Power Ranger. But, hey – Shazam! is arguably the second best DCEU movie, so 93% everybody.
Rating: Of course you should ask for all of your money back. You are still in my universe.