Are DC finally beginning to figure it out? If they can’t have the world-beating, all-conquering cinematic mega franchise that Marvel have built, could they at least have a few films that aren’t absolutely hideous?
The closest conclusion available is now a hard “maybe”. Zachary Levy is the titular Shazam, the title itself referring to the exclamation shouted by young protagonist Billy Batson (Asher Angel) when he needs to transform into a version of himself that has maximised its potential. A version that, naturally, can also shoot lightning, fly, and deflect bullets.
Before we get to Batson, though, director David Sandberg takes us on a lengthy digression back to the childhood of eventual villain Thaddeus Sivana, later played by Mark Strong. We see him fail a moral test that Billy will come to pass, and grow resentful as a result. Years later he harnesses the powers of the seven deadly sins in physical forms, monsters that shoot forth from him when he needs them. He’s a baddie, in short, but one who gets a disproportionate amount of airtime given how conventional he is.
Billy, inevitably, will have to face off against this Nasty Bloke, given his newfound powers. But before that point he, equally obviously, needs to grow to appreciate the diverse new foster family that has taken him in, and to accept that sometimes your family isn’t who you think it is, and blah blah blah. Though acted with modest charm, most prominently by Jack Dylan Grazer as the sarcastic Freddy, this familial subplot is achingly familiar.
Where Shazam! fares better is in its departures from the template, moments of levity and modern snark that work nicely. Whether this means the boys testing the limits of Billy’s power, and establishing just what he can and can’t do, or abusing those powers to disappointing effect, the script has moments of well-observed truth about just how a young boy would react to this wish-fulfilment.
But, when all’s said and done, there’s a big ending fight to be had, and Mark Strong’s got to be vanquished, and we return the much-beaten path. That the film stretches to nearly two and a quarter hours makes no sense, and brevity in Strong’s backstory would surely have been the place to start cutting. The aforementioned big battle veers between tiresome and interesting, the action itself cookie-cutter, but the implications of last twists undeniably piquing. Just where will DC take this strand of its universe from here?
DC is playing a longer game now, potentially having accepted that expectations for its films are low. In this case, as with Wonder Woman and Aquaman, this is a clear helping hand. Shazam! is patently average, but as Marvel has proven so demonstrably, if you can find a decent average, the praise and bucks will flow in.