After a disappointingly long run of quite awful attempts by DC to steal some of Marvel’s comic-universe momentum, Shazam! finally manages to go some small way toward making up the gap.
It is, of course, the origin story of a superhero who — it’s not entirely clear — may or may not be called Shazam. Billy (Asher Angel) is that archetype of American comedy films, the bullied nerd. The little wrinkle Shazam! adds to the story is that Billy is an orphan, separated from his mother at as a toddler at a funfair and now bouncing from one foster home to the next. He arrives at Victor and Rosa’s house, there to be roomed with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, looking alarmingly like Fred Savage in his Wonder Years days). One day, running from his school bullies, he finds himself on a train from which he is, for no reason that is immediately apparent, summoned to the Rock Of Eternity by Shazam, who’s looking for someone wholesome — his last attempt didn’t work out terribly well — to take his superpowers into the real world. Billy says Shazam’s name, and he’s back on the train, but now he’s a grown man in a superhero suit, complete with cape and, it turns out, superpowers.
This is where the fun of the film is to be found. Shazam!, when it’s focussing on Billy figuring out what his powers are, and how to use them, is really quite entertaining. Angel does a decent job of being confused by his new role, while Zachary Levi pulls off a rather difficult job as Shazam himself. It is indeed, fun, albeit rather inconsequential fun. Billy’s new best mate Freddy tries to document his friend’s new-found powers, but Billy is more interested in using them for entirely more important purposes than crime-fighting, such as buying beer.
But there must be, this being a superhero film, a supervillain, and that would be the quite gratuitously evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played with clear relish by Mark Strong. Sivana was once invited by Original Shazam to become the new Shazam, but this failed because Sivana wasn’t sufficiently pure of heart, but not before the seven deadly sins were unleashed. Or something like that — the backstory of Sivana is sketched out in a little less detail than would be entirely desirable.
But no matter. We have a superhero, now we have a nemesis, and that means we have to have a fight. As was the case in Captain Marvel recently, no matter how much fun the film might have been until this point, about half an hour from the end a superhero movie will switch gears, we’ll get a big, bangy, smashy superfight between superhero and supervillain, things will get blown up or smashed up, and the superhero, inevitably, wins. And so we have a fight between Shazam and Sivana, which drags as these fights are wont to do, and, again, there’s no sense of peril. It’s a visual spectacle, of course, but it relies a little too much on the “switch between identities” device that Ant Man And The Wasp also employed recently.
DC deserve some praise for finally releasing a superhero film that isn’t as face-chewingly dreadful as Suicide Squad, as crushingly dull as Batman Versus Superman. But it’s also not got half the charm of anything from the Marvel Comic Universe; it’s not as funny as Guardians Of The Galaxy, or Deadpool, it’s certainly not as dark or as caustic as Deadpool, but it’s still a positive step in the right direction.