"Shazam!" Mixes Family Film Cliches With Hard Violence To Awkward Effect

From kicking off with not one but two tired prologues (one each for hero and villain) to concluding in “Deadpool”-aping animated end credits, Warner Bros. and DC’s “Shazam!” is the zenith of calculated, focus-grouped studio filmmaking: bright and shiny and soul-sucking, cynically stapling family film fare to hyper-violence and kicking its feet up, waiting for the cash to roll in.

On the surface, the film – like last year’s “Aquaman” – is a direct response to the poorly received doom and gloom of four of the universe’s first five films. But the calculations only begin there. Casting erstwhile NBC sitcom actor Zachary Levi in the title role is an especially shrewd bit of business. The movie’s biggest inspiration, ‘80s staple “Big,” did the exact same thing, rolling the dice on former “Bosom Buddies” star Tom Hanks. But “Shazam!” is no “Big,” many zip codes removed from the incisiveness and wit of Penny Marshall’s classic. And Levi is certainly no Hanks, lending a milquetoast presence that at best rises to the level of Henry Gayden’s clumsy screenplay.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid whose latest placement is in a house full of bright-eyed orphans: the young and inquisitive Darla (Faithe Herman), the plucky Eugene (Ian Chen), a quiet teenager named Pedro (Jovan Armand), the bright college applicant Mary (Grace Fulton), and a disabled comic book fan named Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Billy and Freddy become close, closer still when an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou) bestows upon Billy superpowers. With a magic word, Billy can change back and forth between himself and a thirty-something superhero in a crimson costume with a lightning bolt on his chest.

Some mildly amusing body swap hijinks ensue but they’re few and far between, abutted by a startling amount of carnage contrasted with foster home treacle. This obvious, unholy union of family-friendly Marvel and adult Marvel (DC is aping their rival so hard here it hurts) is dissonant to say the least, led by a boring villain (Mark Strong) and accompanied by the most dismal pop soundtrack imaginable.

It’s all very reminiscent of recent Dwayne Johnson-led, fx-heavy event movies “Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” and “Rampage” – noisy and syrupy and destined to please a good chunk of the moviegoing public. Like those movies, what “Shazam!” does really, really well is pummel us with more aggressive versions of well-worn blockbuster tropes. Levi, in all his inoffensiveness, is an ideal vessel for this concentrated dose of ‘roided out spectacle and schmaltz.

Granted, in 2019 this kind of approach may be necessary to get folks to theaters and, harder still, pacify those who’d rather spend time on Snapchat than actually watch the movie they’ve paid to see. But it’s still a worrying reminder that studio films are only going to get more abrasive and derivative as time marches on, regurgitating finely tuned gems like “Big” as mega-budget swill.

In the moment, “Shazam!” is barely watchable. In hindsight, it’s the latest harbinger of a bleak future for blockbuster filmmaking.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: April 5, 2019
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriter: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material)