Shazam! Is a missed opportunity

The official movie poster for Shazam! features Zachary Levi as our hero. Shazam! Has quickly become one of DC’s most critically acclaimed films.(Photo public domain)

Releasing in the U.S. on April 5, Shazam! was projected to steal the show as DC’s next breakout star—and it did just that. Boasting a $53 million opening weekend, resounding fan approval, and an outstanding 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, Shazam! has instantly cemented itself as a DC classic.

The story follows 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphaned delinquent on a search to find his birth mother. After getting into trouble one-too-many times, Billy is placed in a group home full of lovable misfits and outcasts—whom he immediately rejects despite their over the top and unrealistic niceness. Simultaneously, an aging wizard is bested in combat by crazed scientist Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who harnesses the power of the Seven Deadly Sins to seek the ultimate power (yes, you heard all of that insanity correctly). The dying and defeated wizard seeks a champion—an incorruptible soul, truly pure of heart—to pass his power on to. Billy Batson fits the bill, and henceforth dubbed the almighty Shazam. Billy must now learn to use his powers, accept his new family, and battle the apocalyptic Seven Deadly Sins, all while searching for his mom.

On paper, this film works: a funny, coming of age superhero flick with an underlying familial message. What could possibly be wrong with that? For starters, this is about the most overdone, cliched, hackneyed comic book trope of all time. The Avengers, the Guardian of the Galaxy, Justice League—how many different ways can we watch a group of super-powered misfits learn that “anyone can be your family”? Shazam! doesn’t even bother to deliver this message subtly or creatively; the film straight up takes a foster family, gives them superpowers, and overtly states that the only way they can win beat the villain is together.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the antagonists were faceless CGI bad guys that looked like leftovers from Batman v. Superman. They desired nothing more than the generic “world domination” and absolutely no motivation for doing so; they were evil just for the sake of the plot. Production choices like these are lazy and create forgettable characters. In addition, the bloodthirsty Seven Deadly Sins seemed a shade too dark for this comedic origin story. These beasts wanted nothing more than pure carnage—within the film’s first act, the Sins had viciously gored a boardroom full of executives, eaten an elderly paraplegic man, and thrown several people off the top of a skyscraper. Super family friendly movie, right?

Our primary antagonist is left undeveloped until the final act of the film, and our promising side characters are left completely unused—I don’t think I could name more than two of them if I was forced to. The narrative was sloppy, often dragging at points, and the majority of characters are entirely forgettable.

On a more positive note, Zachary Levi absolutely nailed the role of powered up Billy (Shazam). His lines were comical, he fit the part of a Superman look alike, and, most importantly, he really seemed like a kid inside an adult’s body. He subtly hit his head on things, instinctively ran behind small objects to hide, and utterly sold the newness of adult life. Not to mention the montage of him attempting to understand his powers—it’s easily the best scene in the whole movie and accurately depicts the excitement and confusion any kid would feel with newfound superhuman strength.

The simple setting of Philadelphia remained consistent throughout, keeping this outrageous film grounded in reality. The score felt authentic and entirely comic book traditional, and the costume designs looked as if they’d lept right off the page. DC nailed its traditional caped crusader look which no doubt filled diehard fans with nostalgia.

In short, Shazam!’s lack of originality was its undoing—wisecracking super-misfits finding family amongst friends is about as overdone as you can get. Following a smash hit masterpiece like Aquaman, it couldn’t have been easy to compete. However, the classic superhero tropes of this film and sheer amount of heart on display are likely what made it such a fan favorite. With a more interesting villain, enthralling plot, and a bit less clichè, Shazam! could’ve been so much more. They can’t all be billion dollar works of art, but this film has certainly earned a spot at the DC table. Perhaps the sequel will live up to the hype the original received—but if not, we’ll always have Aquaman.

 

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