'Shazam!' tries to be a super-hero film about nothing, succeeds

Captain mediocre

'Shazam!' tries to be a super-hero film about nothing, succeeds
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Opens Friday, April 5
2.5 out of 5 stars

Well, here we have it. With Shazam!, a comic-book movie has finally made it explicit that the superhero story, at its most reductive, is nothing more than an adolescent-male power fantasy. Fourteen-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is chosen by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be his champion, complete with a grownup body (Zachary Levi) clad in spandex and with all sorts of caped-crusader abilities, such as super strength and "bullet immunity"; all Billy needs to do is shout "Shazam!" in order to shift back and forth between his usual teen scrawniness and the magical adult-sized badassery. And what does he do with this unexpected boon? He mostly shows up school bullies, buys beer, goes to a strip club, and goofs around with exploring the extent of his superpowers, even to the point where that sometimes puts innocent people in danger.

Now, I'm sure that anyone who is now or who has ever been a teenaged boy will delight in how the curtain of pretense has been lifted and they can finally revel in being seen by Hollywood. But adolescent-male power fantasies is pretty much all Shazam! has going for it. There's no larger resonance; Shazam! isn't actually about anything. And I'm sure some will insist that it's good that the comic-book movie is "fun again" – as if comic-book stories haven't been explicitly about punching Nazis and other social-justice matters from their very beginnings. For someone who needs at least a little bit of meat in their wish fulfillment, Shazam! is a disappointment.

And Shazam! isn't even simply pure exhilarating fun. Because nothing really matters here, that seems to have been an excuse for screenwriters Henry Gayden (the extremely derivative Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (the unclever meta of Goosebumps) to be lazy, and director David F. Sandberg (the shockingly misjudged Annabelle: Creation) to indulge in cheesiness. (Um, there are some really cheap-looking effects here.) Right from the get-go, the entire premise of Billy's elevation to superhero is confused at best and suspect at worst. The wizard who needs a champion has been trying for decades, at least, to find one, but no one has been worthy enough. Yet the movie doesn't bother to explain whether, once the wizard finally accepts Billy as his champion, the wizard is merely so desperate to Shazam-ize anyone that he overlooks Billy's unworthiness or whether there's supposed to be something about Billy that elevates him above the many other humans the wizard has tested. From what we do see of Billy's character, both before and after his chosenness, he's certainly not a bad person, but there doesn't seem to be anything spectacularly, uniquely good about him, either. We cannot even deduce from everything that follows which is the case with Billy. Which is a problem. If you squint hard enough, you might discern a motif of "With great power comes great responsibility" – although of course no one can articulate that because Shazam is a DC character and Spider-Man, who is famously taught that lesson, is from the other place – but that is even more watered down because we have no idea upon what basis Billy was granted his superpowers, and with what mindset he is using them.

It's a slow-moving slog for the movie to get Billy from playing superhero to an encounter with the ill-conceived putative villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who is, in fact, one of the wizard's long-ago spurned would-be champions. It's a rejection that Sivana never got over, and now he wants to steal the Shazam powers from Billy. Except ... Sivana has his own powers, absorbed from the manifestations of the seven deadly sins that the wizard had been containing. (This movie is a mishmash of such nonsense.)

It's not at all clear what powers Sivana lacks – he seems to have all the same ones that Billy has – or what he will do if he succeeds. The movie tries to make a joke out of its own low stakes, with Sivana monologuing about his evil plans in a way that suggests we don't even need to hear them to know what he wants. But this comes way too late in the movie, and seems more a justification for not developing Sivana as any kind of authentic, plausible character than anything else. We're meant to just take him as a generic villain ... so I guess it's fair that he's as generic as the rest of the clichés here.


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