Movie Review: Shazam
Director: David F. Sandberg
by Jason Koenigsberg
If you are not sick of being inundated with C and D list superhero movies, then Shazam should be the one that pushes you over the edge. This movie was made for juvenile audiences. It is hard to imagine anyone over the age of 15 really loving this movie unless they are die-hard DC fans or just love comic book movie adaptations of all kinds. Shazam is counting on people clamoring for more of the same generic superhero trappings but instead of an edge, it has a cutesy demeanor, as if the entire film was given a sugar-coated topping to make it sweet and go down easy.
The first shot is of a dark sky on a wintry snowy night, the camera pans down to a car driving and then lets us know that we are in Upstate New York in 1974. The kid in the backseat of the car is playing with a magic 8 ball and gets magically transported to a place that looks like a cave set from one of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The audience meets Djimon Hounsou who simply looks embarrassed under a ridiculous make-up and beard costume as a sad wizard. The former Academy Award nominee was recently seen in Captain Marvel and has been in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I guess he needs to pay his bills and these comic book movies are his meal ticket as he switches over to the DC universe. After a really underwhelming opening scene, the title flashes and the movie jumps to present day Philadelphia. The location shooting in the city added authenticity and made Philadelphia look like a great place to shoot a film. There we meet our main character who is an orphan looking for his mother as he jumps from different foster homes. The family he eventually settles with for the movie is a house filled with interesting and lovable characters one would wish they were developed a little more since they are some of the most endearing parts of Shazam. But this movie has a story to tell as predictable as every other superhero ever made, so those charming elements that could make it stand out have to take a back seat to the wholly unoriginal plot.
Once our teenage foster child hero gets caught up in the mystical world (or cave set from LOTR) he gets a superpower that makes him bigger and older, transforming him into the title character played by Zachary Levi who looks a lot like a young Jon Hamm. Shazam has to fight supervillain Marc Strong who is really wasting his talents here and you can tell he is in this one just for the paycheck. Shazam has some funny moments, a few where I laughed out loud, especially during the montage where he is discovering his powers. But once again, these are all staples of other comic book movies. Shazam offers nothing new. Even its theme of the importance of family and everyone having the ability to become a superhero was done much better in last December’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
What also really hurt Shazam is the Christmas imagery. Not only is this April release very out of season but it made me think of writer/director Shane Black’s work like Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). His work is far more engaging and even though they are not always great films they always have an edge and never play it safe like Shazam does. His movies never feel generic. Shazam was really hurt by the lack of strong direction, this movie felt like it was directed by a committee and not a singular vision. It has no style or personal touch or anything that makes the story feel unique. This has a more modest budget than other DC and Marvel movies with A-list superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Spider-man, but that is not what hurts Shazam. If anything it could have helped the filmmakers put more emphasis on the human characters instead of mediocre looking CGI. Plus, there are so enough noticeable plotholes that most viewers over a certain age might be scratching their heads.
One of Shazam’s most obvious influences was the Penny Marshall film Big (1988) starring Tom Hanks. It even has a clever but not subtle reference to Big as Shazam fights the main bad guy in a toy store and at one moment they are standing on a giant piano mat. Shazam tries to be Big as a superhero movie but just ends up feeling like a long episode of Power Rangers. Big managed to feel just adult enough to entertain both children and adults alike, Shazam will only really entertain children and adults who are very young at heart and love this seemingly neverending trend of superhero movies.
Skip Shazam and see Tom Hanks in the role he earned his first Academy Award nomination for in Big.