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‘Shazam!’ offers refreshingly nostalgic view

April 13, 2019

Ever since lifting the somber pall of director Zack Snyder, who originally oversaw films in the DC Cinematic Universe, the studio has provided levity to its output: from letting Aquaman chill with drumming octopi and glittery seahorses, to the droll humor throughout “Wonder Woman.” It’s a welcome change from the brooding bros and sulky sisters that charged out of the gate in early DC films. 

And “Shazam!” is about as far away as you can get from the earlier Christopher Nolan-inspired roots from which Snyder’s world was born. Kitschy, unabashedly silly and buoyant for the majority of its runtime, “Shazam!” feels like it was straight out of the ‘80s, from its obvious influencers (“Big”) to its kids-vs-otherworldly shenanigans (“The Goonies,” “Explorers,” “Stranger Things”). And “Shazam!” is almost as good as those that inspired it. 

Almost.

Its plot is arrow-straight: Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) is an orphan desperately searching for him mom as he bounces from foster home to foster home.

He’s ultimately placed in a loving one with supportive parents and a gang of other multiethnic outcasts, but he’s still unsettled.

On a subway ride home, he is delivered to an alternate reality in which a wizard (played by a bombastic Djimon Hounsou) bestows upon him magic powers and turns him into a muscular, cape-and-tights-wearing adult (played by Zachary Levi). 

It’s entry-level superhero formula, and that’s not meant to be dismissive.

It’s warm, fun, and affectionate, riding primarily on the square shoulders of Angel and Levi.

As is typical for these types of films, there needs to be a villain, and Mark Strong fills the bill, but this entire stretch of “Shazam!” is where it will test those of us who are suffering from SOS (Superhero Oversaturation Syndrome). 

Before Strong enters the picture, we are set up with a number of freewheeling, energetic moments where our new superhero is adapting to his super-abilities with his new roommate Freddy (played by the engaging Jack Dylan Grazer). They are filled with whimsy and “What would you do with superpowers?” wish fulfillment. 

But this cannot sustain the film’s bulky 132-minute runtime, which ultimately shifts more toward director David F. Sandberg’s darker origins (“Lights Out,” “Annabelle: Creation”), and that lets the air out of the inflated sense of fun the film first carries.

The original “Superman” and most recent “Wonder Woman” knew how to balance on the line between silly and serious without slipping, and for a while, “Shazam!” looks like it might do the same, but it fails to stick the landing. 

Strong’s demon-unleashing bad guy seems to have come straight from the earlier DC Universe, and the darkened tones don’t fit at all with the film’s previously levity. In addition, the final battle drags on far too long, wearing out its welcome frame by frame. 

But for the most part, “Shazam!” still marks a swerve away from the dark path down which DC was originally headed, and before it merged with it at the end, it offered a refreshingly nostalgic view.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.