After a muddled approach to DC Comics’ attempts to replicate Marvel’s all-conquering behemoth, Shazam is, on the surface, an attempt to try something different.
So far, DC has focused on its big ticket heroes – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc – or on big ensembles, like Justice League and Suicide Squad.
The bulk of the films have had been fairly weighty and bigger, with each going for grand scale. This one, by contrast, mainly plays in a breezier style and fashion.
After various strands of set-up, the film focuses on troubled teenage orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who lives in Philadelphia skimming in and out of foster homes.
He is sent to a new foster home lead by Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans), who have five further foster children. Billy is paired in a room with disabled superhero nerd Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer).
Billy saves Freddy from bullies and is able to lose them on the Philadelphia Subway. But while ratting along, he stumbles into the film’s parallel narrative, whereupon he is summoned to the Rock of Eternity Temple and meets the Grand Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), where is named Shazam’s Champion and bestowed with super powers.
In parallel to Billy’s early struggles, a young Dr Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) is rejected by Shazam in the 1970s, and as a grown adult (Mark Strong) in modern times, duly plots his return to the temple to confront the wizard that shunned him.
At the point when he gains access, he steals the Eye of Sins and become a vessel for personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, then runs amok, attacking the wizard before killing his brother and father as part of his early power splurge.
Meanwhile, when Billy is given powers, he wakes up back on the train as the adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi), in a full red, gold and white costume.
He’s able to convince Freddy that its still him, eventually showing off his ability to switch between normal and hero by saying his name, and, through a superhero training montage and various YouTube vids, soon begins working out how good a hero he is.
Naturally, this attracts the attention of Sivana, who by now has donned a knee-length trenchcoat and Ray Bans in full scenery-chewing bad guy glory, leading to a full on conflict.
For anyone who isn’t into the source material, the film could essentially be pitched as a superhero origin story crossed over with the 90’s movie Big, where a young boy wishes he was an adult then wakes up as Tom Hanks. Indeed, there is a sequence with a Walking Piano that pays homage.
The central performances are fun enough, with Angel playing well as the tortured central character and Levi impressing as the counterpart superhero going giddy with his new powers.
As a semi-accomplice, Grazer is the character who is also worthy of praise. Effectively countering as a giddy viewer trying to fit in, he is delightful and is perhaps the viewer’s best way into the drama.
Strong as the villain, as a contrast, is a pleasingly scenery-chewing menace, if in truth given a fairly one dimensional arc. Indeed, Strong’s position in the drama lays an issue with the film, which is that while there is some pleasing changes to the formula, the movie seems to play to the central identikit structure that a superhero origin movie is built about and a lot of its conventions.
Overall, there’s a feeling that the film could feel a bit more out there. There are several areas of the film that feels like it could’ve come straight out of the superhero cinema playbook, and could’ve gone for something more subversive or unusual. There’s plenty of attractive window dressing, but it lacks a true out-there wow to rise it above the average.
Still, if DC is looking to try something new, the embryo of a new direction is there. It certainly feels more original than last December’s Aquaman, which suffered from a lot of the established template more.
As a breezy and brisk 2 hours, Shazam is fine enough, and it is carried as much by a highly engaging central cast. There’s enough to recommend it, and its likely the die-hards will appreciate it as a different interpretation that has big potential for future instalments. But it feels like an opportunity missed to be something more.