My cringe muscles got a major workout in Shazam!, the way they do when in the presence of a floundering standup comic. I wanted to laugh, just to save the movie some embarrassment, but nothing funny was happening. I think I reached maximum cringe when the movie acknowledged it was ripping off Big by throwing in a step-activated keyboard scene but then couldn’t figure out anything to do with the idea. Boy-turned-adult superhero Billy Batson (Zachary Levi) runs across the keyboard, so does a pursuer and that’s it. No comedy twist, just “Remember this much better movie on the same subject?”
Casting is a crucially underrated component to blockbuster movies, and Levi’s effort to be the new Tom Hanks is a total failure, even worse than the same character’s bland portrayal by Asher Angel, a featureless boy-band type, when he’s in his 14-year-old body. The young Billy has been cast out of a succession of foster homes while trying to find the mother from whom he was separated as a little kid, and has developed some toughness and cynicism as scabs over his psychic wounds. None of this is particularly well conveyed by the teen actor, but what’s bizarre is that, after a visit with a wizard from another dimension gives Billy superpowers and an adult body, this smart teen inexplicably turns into a wide-eyed bozo. As played by Levi, the adult Billy Batson never stops mugging and shrieking and pratfalling, more Pee Wee Herman than the cool Marty McFly–style teen he is in his real body. Billy’s new foster brother, Freddy (played by Jack Dylan Grazer, nephew of the producer Brian Grazer), is almost as irritating to watch as Levi, rushing through his lines with no comic timing whatsoever. Freddy has a mild disability, and the other kids in the foster home are a multicultural gang of winsome sweethearts, and all of these details are the equivalent of neon sign reading, “You will adore us.” In other words, lazy screenwriting. You don’t get to issue orders to your audience.
Nor can you make them laugh by having your characters yuk it up. The screenwriters, Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, prove unable to elevate the material beyond its 1970s Saturday-morning-television feel. The movie veers between dumb slapstick and vicious murders (filmed in dishwater tones in the less salubrious precincts of Philadelphia as though the director, David F. Sandberg, wasn’t allowed to go “dark” but settled for “soiled”). One minute Freddy and Billy are arguing about whether Shazam, who shoots lightning from his fingertips, should be known as “Captain Sparklefingers,” and the next minute the evil Thaddeus Sivana is unleashing orc-sized demons inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins on a conference room full of innocent business executives, one of whom gets decapitated in the process.
Those monsters originate in the film’s back story, which is unusually hokey and out-of-nowhere for a contemporary superhero movie. Under a fright wig, Djimon Hounsou plays an ancient wizard in a parallel dimension who has a Willy Wonka–like wish to pass on his secrets to a morally worthy kid but seems to settle on Billy at random. An unworthy kid, Thaddeus Sivana (played by Ethan Pugiotto), instead seizes the dark side of the wizard’s powers and also gains command over the Seven Deadly Sins, growing up to be the nefarious Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). Why use the Seven Deadlies in a movie if they’re just going to serve (until the last few minutes, anyway) as generic henchmen instead of having them play off people’s character flaws? Moreover, the scenes in the wizard’s lair, which are supposed to be eerie and frightening, are so chintzy that we might as well be in a road-show production of Phantom of the Opera. Hounsou has nowhere near the requisite gravitas to make his character compelling; put Liam Neeson in the role and the movie would be 10 percent better right there.
Spider-Man: Homecoming covered much the same ground as Shazam!, with the teen Peter Parker learning to use his superhero tools and getting into situations he couldn’t quite handle, but the earlier movie had a smart, funny script and a clever plot with a superb twist. Tom Holland had perfect pitch in the lead role. Shazam! thinks it can get by with Levi’s rubber-faced goofing on the one hand and Strong’s tough-guy glowering on the other. The hero is a simpering prat; the villain is flat and uninteresting, with none of the seductive qualities of the great antagonists. When the two finally meet for an endless smackdown in the skies above Philadelphia, Levi is still doing shtick, and this in a movie that supposedly takes place in the same cinematic universe as Batman v Superman. Shazam seems to have at least as much superhero power as Superman, yet the Man of Steel was treated as both a god and a source of terror in the previous film, so why do the people of Philadelphia barely take notice of Shazam, who is so desperate for attention that he resorts to doing dumb stunts for spare change on the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art? When the director Zack Snyder was in charge, DC movies had a tendency to be pretentious, but at least they had ideas. Shazam! has the depth of a Jackass movie.