Shazam! (2019, David F. Sandberg)

At its very best, for a few minutes Shazam! seems like a Wes Anderson-esque superhero movie gone wrong. Like they lost the music they wanted at the last minute but had still cut the sequence together. Specifically, it’s Zachary Levi’s superhero training YouTubes, set to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. The song has no meaning to Levi or the sequence. It’s just familiar in the right way. It’s desperate but competent, which describes most of the movie.

The sequence is long enough to grok how they could’ve done the picture as an Anderson riff, specifically Rushmore, but then it’s more like they saw the MTV Music Awards Rushmore bits and didn’t realize there was a context. It’s a weird fail because it’s not exactly disappointing. Until the superhero finale, it’s the most effort director Sandberg puts into anything in the movie, and it shows. There’s thoughtfulness, just not successful thoughtfulness.

Anyway.

Shazam! is an inoffensively lackluster superhero origin story. The first act gets its personality from a John Glover cameo (hey, it’s better than his last DC movie) and then the unsuccessful but not bad Djimon Hounsou cameo. The film’s problem is little the actors actually interact with one another except to move the plot forward; deliver your lines, and get out. Sandberg doesn’t spend any time on the actors responding or reacting. It hurts the cameos just because there’s no weight when the actors return later on. No one’s got any chemistry; they’re just doing schtick.

So it’s never a surprise when Sandberg doesn’t make it happen. When he does, however, it stands out. Like a Big reference in a toy store, but it comes after there’s no acknowledgment of the rest of the scene, which is superhero Levi basically throwing random children in front of supervillain Mark Strong. The most impressive thing about Shazam! is how many subplots they can avoid. There are at least three, probably more, with one presumably left over for the sequel. The others, however, just get dropped once they get to the third act.

And Shazam! does have a good third act. Not the story, but the superhero action. It’s got an excellent superhero action finish, with plenty of cute Superman II nods. It’s shocking how well Sandberg can direct the sequences after the previous, bland hundred minutes. There are also some good, not specific to Levi’s superhero observations about the genre, like supervillains talking from far away and everyone recording on smartphones. Shazam!’s sadly more thoughtful in its background than its foreground, which is trite. Much like Sandberg’s direction, Henry Gayden’s script is perfunctory. There’s no such thing as character development in the script, with the film instead relying on the actors. Unfortunately, Sandberg’s got no time for the actors’ performances, so it’s just a bunch of rote deliveries of rote lines.

So it’s impressive when actors stand out, like Faithe Herman and Grace Fulton. Okay, a quick explanation of the plot. Levi is the adult superhero version of teenager Asher Angel, who has just moved into a new foster home. Herman, Fulton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Ian Chen, and Jovan Armand play his foster siblings. Herman’s the adorable one, Chen’s the gamer, Armand’s the silent one, Grazer’s the superhero fanboy, and Angel’s pal. Grazer ought to have much better material, as he’s Levi’s sidekick in addition to Angel’s. But no. The only one to get a subplot is Fulton, who’s the oldest and going to college soon. Of course, the going-to-college thing is her subplot, but it’s something. There’s zip for the rest of the kids. Angel’s subplot is searching for his mom, Caroline Palmer, who lost him in the prologue.

Angel and Levi don’t resemble much physically—white guys with brown hair, I guess—which would be fine if there was any effort in syncing their performances. There’s not. Levi’s playing a totally different teenager turned superhero adult. All they needed to do was establish a link between the performances, and it’d be fine. Instead, it’s where you can just give up on Shazam!. If the movie’s not going to take its central conceit seriously, why bother with any of it.

Also, they talk about family so much they should’ve gotten a Vin Diesel cameo. Or at least had them watching Fast and the Furious. The villains are the Seven Deadly Sins, which makes very little sense because—even though the foster family says grace—it’s an ambiguous higher power grace. But if they’d had a bit about the kids watching Se7en….

Shazam! just needed a competent rewrite.

Levi’s amusing without being particularly likable. He’s a little desperate for approval, which should work better for the movie. Maybe if they’d have gotten the one cameo they really needed at the end. None of it ties to Angel or his performance; Angel’s never better than mediocre, but he never got the chance to be anything but mediocre.

Strong’s terrible, but in a killjoy, unambitious sort of way. The film aims to keep him as unremarkable (literally) as possible. He’s dressed like a nineties Eurotrash villain, and the special effects on his supervillain sequences are good. It actually just plays into the Superman II riffs.

The film’s technically proficient, just without any distinction. Thanks to the third act, I suppose Maxime Alexandre’s photography is the best technical.

Shazam!’s tedious without being boring. It could be worse and seems to be the peak of the production’s capabilities. But it’s desperate, neglectful, and indecisive. So I suppose with all those caveats, it’s better than expected. And then, obviously, that third act’s great.

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