Tue, 23 Apr 2019
Running time 2hr12min
IN many respects, Shazam! strives to do for the (very, very po-faced) DC Cinematic Universe what Deadpool did for the (slightly less haughty) Marvel franchise – that is, to expand its generic and thematic horizons in a quirky, polarising manner.
Whereas the latter fed the winning superhero movie formula into a crude, cussy action-comedy, Shazam! is – superficially – a family flick, a riotous cautionary riff on childhood angst and the pitfalls of responsibility (think Kick-Ass meets Big). Like all the best Hughes or Spielberg kiddie capers, it’s got a real handle on the psyche of its juvenile audience, brimming with peril and adult(-ish) humour; as such, it’s easily among DC’s best to date.
Billy Batson (played by charismatic newcomer Asher Angel) is a teenage wildcard, racked by grief and trauma. After being fostered by a sympathetic couple (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), he encounters Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer); the
relationship between this geeky, perpetually tormented misfit and our felonious hero is surprisingly well-constructed, lending the film a vital emotional backbone in the face of its clichés (think orphans, bullies and laughably nefarious villains). Absent a distressing opening sequence, one could easily take Shazam! for a no-frills outcast comedy; it’s only when Billy has a chance brush with the ancient wizard of the title (Djimon Hounsou) that it picks up pace, as the protagonist is transformed into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Like the cast of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Levi is singularly committed to the whole kid-in-the-wrong-body thing, playing Billy as a youth completely out of his depth on so many levels – tentatively embracing his sudden ‘maturity’, he oscillates between haplessness, recklessness and total impetuosity (a vaguely risqué scene sees him visit a strip club). Freddy, a comic book fan, is keen to guide his friend down a righteous path and many a laugh is derived from the interplay between him and Billy’s hunky alter ego – as in the case of the Tom Hanks-Jared
Rushton pairing in Big, the chemistry between the two carries over after the transmogrification, making it nothing less than a treat to watch.
Shazam! is hardly without its shortcomings. The film’s Mr Big, one Thaddeus Sivana, is played to melodramatic effect by Mark Strong. As in all too many of Strong’s roles (see his SNP-baiting turn as a Scot in Kingsman), his personal dedication and likeability is tempered by inconsistent writing – if you like your villains panto-grade and zero-dimensional, you’ll love Thaddeus.
Deadpool analogy becomes particularly pertinent where the movie’s gag-a-minute delivery is concerned. While writers Darren Lemke and Henry Gayden are clearly quipsters par excellence, their talent borders on flippancy where Shazam! is more sentimental (or otherwise sensitive) moments are concerned – its marriage of slush and satire (a combo not unknown to comedies of this decade) is only partially successful. Equally unnecessary is the runtime – a final-act showdown at a theme park serves up awes and guffaws at a reliable rate, but, by Lord, it drags. All this should not overshadow the film’s abundant good points, however; it’s a rare thing nowadays to come across a blockbuster with such self-consciously universal appeal, and that factor alone goes above and beyond in redeeming the thing. One for kids, kidults and – gasp! – those who’ve been craving a good DC adventure.