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October 28, 2021

DC Comics’ new film Shazam! fails to make magic on screen

By BINYAMIN NOVETSKY | April 11, 2019

GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0 Zachary Levi plays Billy Batson, the kid-turned-adult-superhero in Shazam!

I went into Shazam! with pretty high hopes. It had been very well reviewed, and I’d heard some really good things. Zachary Levi is a great actor who looked perfect for the role of the main character, kid-turned-adult-superhero Billy Batson, and the trailers were exciting and hilarious. Things all looked positive, and I was genuinely eager to see it opening night. So, with all that being said, I want to be very clear — Shazam! was not a good movie. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I saw it, but it was not a quality film.

I’ll start from the top. The movie begins with an extended backstory of the main antagonist, Dr. Sivana (played by a disappointing Mark Strong). When I say backstory here, I don’t just mean part of it or the beginning of it. His entire character motivation is all shown immediately in the very first scene. Now the scene isn’t bad necessarily. But if you watched a single trailer for this movie, you’d probably think that it looks a lot like a comedy. 

And the thing is you’d be right. For almost all of the movie, it is a comedy — except for the first ten minutes, that is, which resemble more of a thriller or even a horror film than a comedy. There are no jokes or comedic relief, just pretty graphic violence and a few things that are frankly even kind of scary. 

Then, boom, the main movie starts and you see a fourteen-year-old kid trick some cops and run away laughing. While it’s an objectively funny entrance for the main character, I sat there still rattled by what I’d just seen. Those tonal issues and inconsistencies unfortunately continue throughout the movie. 

For a movie that blatantly, and at times successfully, makes fun of the superhero genre, there are some gratuitously dark and gruesome scenes that make no sense in the context of a movie clearly trying to be comedic. Shazam! acts as though it is perfectly normal to turn around and go for laughs, as if it hasn’t just shown you the incredibly violent murder of twenty people.

Like I said, though, I did mostly enjoy this movie. The dynamics of the foster family that protagonist Billy Batson finds himself placed in are phenomenal. The kids are cute and amusing, the parents are over-the-top but beautifully warm and loving. Billy’s chemistry with his physically disabled foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), both as himself and as his adult superhero alter-ego, worked wonderfully. 

The two brothers have clever and at times hysterical interactions, and chemistry that shows their immaturity without making them feel unrelatable or unenjoyable to watch. These relationships alone make the movie worth seeing in my opinion. The comedy of the movie works best in these contexts because it makes you care about the characters and it is enjoyable just to watch them be together.

And don’t get me wrong, this movie is funny. Zachary Levi is perfectly cast as a kid in a grown-up superhero body, and he does an amazing job. His scenes as an adult with Freddy are probably the highlights of the movie. The montage of them testing what superpowers he has, the moment they realize he has bullet immunity, trying to teach him how to fly — all of these things are genuinely good. 

The only problem is that when the characters actually do things relevant to the plot, the movie quickly grows stale. The lore of the titular hero is very poorly explained — his name is an acronym of ancient Greek heroes and gods, yet he fights a villain based on the seven deadly sins, a mythological contradiction that goes entirely unaddressed. Speaking of which, the seven deadly sins look pretty creepy and dangerous for a lighthearted movie, but only three of them are actually obviously recognizable as the sin they represent. In fact there’s literally a scene where Zachary Levi starts saying which one is which and stops after saying those three. 

Shazam is a wizard, which means something, I guess, but all that’s actually shown is that he has superpowers. The movie also makes a pretty big deal out of people who aren’t chosen for the role of the wizard because they don’t deserve it, but it never explains why Billy deserves to get these powers. 

The action scenes are particularly underwhelming, and though they’re not central to the movie itself, that doesn’t excuse them for at times being plain boring. 

At the end of the day, I walked out of Shazam! with mixed feelings. I laughed a lot during the movie, and I felt for some of the characters, but I’d just expected so much more. 

A disappointing villain made the whole plot of the movie feel cheap and uninteresting. Although Billy’s family was great, when you find yourself more invested in the parts of the movie where nothing is happening there are clearly some pretty significant flaws that need to be addressed. 

And without giving away any spoilers, the ending of this movie was just insane. For the last fifteen or twenty minutes my head was reeling just trying to follow what was happening, and the post-credit scenes were even weirder. I liked Shazam!, but it was definitely disappointing. I walked in hoping for a movie to love and left with a movie I somewhat enjoyed but was deeply frustrated by.

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