Thrust into this mishmash is Billy Batson, first seen as a lost toddler and reintroduced as a troublemaking teen foster kid (Asher Angel). Billy, shuttled from foster home to foster home for years, is assigned to the Vasquez’s, a warm couple with five other adopted kids, all multiracial per the style of the times. The closest to Billy’s age is Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero-obsessed kid with a limp and a motormouth. Billy is standoffish at first, but can’t help himself from defending Freddy from bullies at school. This good deed puts him on the radar of the elderly Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who summons Billy to his interdimensional lair and infuses him with his powers. When the teen yells out Shazam, he’s transformed into an adult (Zachary Levi) with a suit and a cape and a suite of powers that he and Freddy get to test out.
Set against this Big premise is the villain’s story, because all superhero movie protagonists and antagonists have to be funhouse mirror versions of each other. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is also provided with a flashback to his childhood, where we see another unloved and unwanted child who was called to Shazam’s lair but not chosen. As an adult, Sivana has worked tirelessly to get back to those few minutes he spent in Shazam’s lair as a child. He finally succeeds and defeats Shazam, taking the vessel containing the deadly sins and using them as a twisted version of Shazam’s powers. When Billy emerges as Shazam’s chosen vessel, Sivana seeks him out as the final piece of his plan, believing that if he can take Shazam’s powers alongside the power of the sins, he’ll be unstoppable.
The world of Billy Batson, of an indestructible man-child and his gleeful teen sidekick, is intercut with the brutal vision of Sivana, and there hasn’t been such a disparate approach in tone since Three Men and a Baby climaxed with a drug deal at an abandoned construction site. Here’s a silly scene of pratfalls and one-liners as Billy and Freddy try to buy beer. Here’s a vicious defenestration of Sivana’s own brother followed by the sins, who manifest as demons, biting the heads off a corporate board, as visualized, per Kill Bill Vol 2, of feet flailing in panic and feet not flailing in panic. The basic premise of Shazam is inherent to every child who can imagine a grown-up future, and therefore makes this theoretically appropriate for a PG-rated family film. Sandberg, with his roots in horror and likely prodded by Warner Brothers to appeal to a teen audience, goes darker with violence that pushes the boundary of a PG-13 rating. The script also incorporates emotionally heavy elements regarding Billy’s past, and the two approaches are simply incompatible. If Marvel has figured out a happy medium between pathos and frivolity, Shazam aims for the opposite poles of that slider at the same time, and doesn’t come close to knocking down their self-imposed 7-10 split.
If Shazam is two movies clumsily spliced together, then there’s some pleasure to be derived from disconnected pieces. In his two incarnations, the character of Billy Batson stays consistent. Angel isn’t playing him as a world-weary adult in a kid’s body, but as a prickly kid with a waning but present capacity to connect to his childish enthusiasm, and Levi takes that and runs with it. Levi convincingly reverts back to adolescence in a funny and charming performance. Both actors bounce well off of Grazer, a smart alecky type whose occasional jerkish behavior never shades into annoying.
Shazam’s best parts are characters working out their new realities, but then there’s the parts of this 132-minute film that aren’t that, namely the action in Sivana’s world. Sandberg doesn’t make his film look appreciably different from any other superhero movie, and there’s a missed opportunity with the appearance of the sins. With the exception of Gluttony, an easy one, each demon isn’t differentiated in appearance or specific powers. There’s no reason Shazam couldn’t have gone full Dante’s Inferno here, and we’re instead left with slavering gray blobs.
It’s likely for the best that DC is finding some variety in how it presents its superhero films, but Shazam is trying to be too many things. It’s both formula-driven and swinging wildly, never connecting on its big risks and leaving only furrowed brows. An inevitable return to these characters might narrow the focus onto what works, but the events of the finale move the film past the learning curve that characterizes Shazam’s assets and a rehash would feel like exactly that. It’s good that Zachary Levi can use his infectious energy on a broad audience. Shazam needed to recognize that was what justified its existence and not bloodless yet cruel violence that can be found everywhere. C