Sometimes taking time to sleep on a film is wise. People who write reviews all the time, like myself, often write under crazy constraints to get the review up on Rotten Tomatoes or out into the world. By virtue of seeing Shazam! later than most I am able to be free of an echo chamber. That being said, even though I gave it two night’s rest, much of the film still felt like a mess to me, although the good parts have stood out in a strong relief.
Shazam is a movie about finding your own path. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid who has spent his entire life searching for his mother, whom he lost at a carnival. His latest attempt lands him with a foster family with two loving parents and a ton of siblings (Jack Dylan Grazer, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, and Jovan Armand). His background also seemingly makes him the perfect person to receive a wizard’s powers and turn into a superhero. Much like any other teenager who gets turned into a strapping guy (Zachary Levi) with powers, he does silly things, figures out his powers, and generally goofs around. That is until he meets the villainous Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong and his bad bitch villain outfit) who has his own complicated family history and Billy is forced to step up to become a hero worthy of the name Shazam.
Of the recent DC films, Shazam is placed squarely in the middle of a course correction for them, and it definitely shows. The first two thirds of this movie, and even some of the last third, are tonally all over the place and kind of messy. The exposition in this movie is clunky as all get out, particularly in how it approaches the villain getting his powers and the lair of the wizards (anyone can come in, be tempted by, and take the evil eye?). Shazam also has a problem in that it does so well for 90% of the film acknowledging how the character’s ages have influenced them only to have a super crucial conversation happen and the character speak as though they are an adult. The movie was rightfully aimed at children, but then there are sequences of extreme violence and “scariness.” It’s not the fact that the movie might be too scary for kids, it’s that this violence is presented in a harsh way, but also JUST muted enough to keep the movie rated PG-13. We see multiple people literally get their heads bitten off on screen (in an alleged kids film!) but there’s no blood so it’s all good….I guess. This kind of approach make the airier moments in the film standout more, as does allow the emotional undercurrents to be present.
Speaking of emotions, this movie toys with ours. I was struck by how grounded and real all the sibling and foster parent relationships felt, definitely the highlight of the film. Watching these characters play off of each other and learn and grow was really fun. Particularly as the movie moved towards the conclusion, the various ways it pairs its ensemble up in new ways was a delight. The movie is also incredibly nuanced in how it portrays its themes, working for both kids and adults. I do think that the movie’s big emotional beats didn’t really land for me in the way the small ones did. Dr. Thaddeus Sivana reunion with his father, Billy finding who he hopes to be his mother, a mid movie fight between Shazam and Freddy, none of these moved me in the way I think the movie wanted them to. Also, casting age appropriate people is crucial if you want us to believe a particular person was say, 17 years old, when a life altering choice had to be made.
Now even with all of that being said, for all the foolery and mess, when Shazam knows that it needs to dig deep and deliver the goods of a superhero film it does. The third act “twist” and final battle are up there in the top tier of superhero movies. I might not be entirely sure if they earned how awesome it was, but I won’t complain because it singlehandedly makes the movie worth the price of admission. Shazam is a movie that’s a mixed bag, but its a good time at the theatre.