There is nothing wrong with going to the cinema to just sit back and relax and enjoy yourself. In fact major blockbusters bank on people doing just this. Sure you can like art-house cinema, foreign cinema and everything in between but sometimes you just want to sit down, laugh and escape. Shazam! for all intents and purposes was marketed as a film designed as a distraction, something with a clear cut goal of making your day just a little bit brighter after coming in. How surprising it is then to find that amidst all the jokes and frivolity, Shazam is pretty bleak
Telling the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi), an angst ridden teenage runaway in search of his real mother, a woman who lost him when he was young. When he is found by social services he is placed with the Vasquez family who, despite their best efforts, can’t get through to him. However when he is given the power of Shazam he asks for help from his new ‘family’ so he can come to terms with his newfound abilities and become the hero he doesn’t think he can be or wants to be.
Hidden within that synopsis is a lively, family orientated superhero movie. However the finished product feels too wrapped up in the trappings of a conventional superhero origins story to concentrate on what sets it apart. The discussion of biology versus nature here could have amounted to a unique experience that highlighted family and togetherness over the generic hype of good versus evil and while David F Sandberg does provide some subtle moments of heart the film loses sight of the big picture in favour of a picture that feels above all else, small and petty.
Spending most of its time playing for laughs, Shazam! crafts its story around its comedy, not the other way around and when you are moving from one joke to the next instead of letting them land naturally, the audience sees them coming. Both predictably flat and lacking in real laugh out loud moments, Sandberg avoids the important details in favour of a losing battle, something for which his characters suffer.
While the decision to cast Levi as the titular Shazam is an inspired piece of casting, a choice that highlights the childish but optimistic nature of the character, it is the rest of the cast that suffers here. For a film devoted to family, Billy’s new extended family gets short changed by a script that doesn’t care about them the way it should. Each is assigned a archetype, an outline of someone designed to push Billy from A to B, a walking plot devise, not a living breathing family member, someone who you know better than the average Joe watching at home. The closeness required never materialises thanks to a script too busy cracking wise to care.
Despite being the most upbeat of the DC offerings, thanks to a change in direction behind the scenes of DC itself, Shazam! is a film about a self absorbed teenager that manages to have an incredibly ironic case of tunnel vision, making a film about figuring out what family is in a film that doesn’t seem to know what it is, or how to show it. The absentee foster parents that pop in and out whenever the script chooses, the non verbal siblings that exist to serve a purpose outside of caring, this isn’t happy families, this is a halfway house masquerading as a loving one.
It would be somewhat palatable if the film felt like the hopeful, encouraging one of the trailers but this is a film full of grey, black and brown. The colour wheel Sandberg uses feels strangely depressing for a film so excited by its boisterous hero. Throw in an uncomfortably droll performance by Mark Strong as the films lead villain and Shazam! feels beige, a mismatch of different tones that never mesh with the vibrant finale that seems to belong to a different film, a sequel not yet set up.
While in the end you might see some semblance of a film you might enjoy to watch, it feels like behind the scenes machinations. The crafting of a future story which has the possibility of far outweighing its predecessor in quality. However all it means is that in Shazam! you are stuck with vapid character, a bleak and humourless world and a film that lacks stakes and meaning making it an endeavour not worth the time.