Shazam! wants to be slick and smartassy except when it suddenly chooses to be warm and sincere—like a TV commercial for some medication or life insurance. You can’t have it both ways but this film repeatedly tries to do so. I’ve always loved the character who originated as Captain Marvel in 1940s comic books (and lost that name to Marvel in a famous lawsuit). He was essentially a rip-off of Superman but he had his own style and flavor. This movie, however, is a muddle.
Parents should know that Shazam! opens with a scene where a truly nasty father (John Glover) verbally abuses his young son, Thaddeus Sivanna, leaving lifelong psychic scars. Then we witness another childhood trauma: young Billy is separated from his mother at a carnival and she never comes to claim him!
In the midst of these upsetting sequences our young hero is transported to a spooky lair where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) gives him great powers which can be summoned by uttering the name Shazam! With that, our boy-hero is transformed into a full-grown man with a really cool outfit. Zachary Levi plays the overnight superhero with a jokey swagger. When he reverts to the boyish Billy (played by Asher Angel), he’s an odd fit with his new foster family, especially his perpetually-bullied foster brother (Jack Dylan Granger), who is disabled. If that sounds convoluted, there’s a good reason: it is.
What’s more, when the superhero’s story reaches a climactic showdown with its bad guy (Mark Strong, slumming here), the rules of engagement change with every scene. We know who we’re rooting for but the film repeatedly confuses us about who is capable of what.
This all goes on for more than two hours, under the direction of David F. Sandberg. The screenplay is credited to Henry Gayden, sharing story credit with Darren Lemke. Their work isn’t boring but it does become repetitious. The cheerfully energetic Levi seems to exist in a different movie from his costars… and his character is much too eager to drop the names of Superman and Batman (not to mention their toys and likenesses) in the most arbitrary ways.
I simply lost interest somewhere along the way. And I would caution parents about the content of this comic-book movie. The Seven Deadly Sins come to life as gross and genuinely frightening creatures. Too bad one of them didn’t swallow the script.
(For the curious among you, check out the 1941 Republic serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. It’s naïve but still entertaining for the young and young at heart. I wrote about it HERE.)