The success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse served as a powerful reminder that superheroes were created first and foremost for children, and as a direct consequence, superhero movies can resonate with and therefore at least occasionally should be designed for them. Without needing to be “dumbed down,” they should reflect the values and aspirations of children, the wish fulfillment, the adversity, the moral clarity and the sense of consequence that comes from trying to do good in a world that they are increasingly discovering is not always so good. Spider-Verse accomplishes that in such a profound and transcendent way that it comes as no surprise that parents I know reconnect with their own inner kid as they watch, while their children explode in delirious excitement, pretending - and aspiring - to be Miles Morales.
Conversely, I’m not sure if Shazam! is the exact superhero movie that a kid would make for him or herself, or it’s a perfect encapsulation of studio groupthink trying to anticipate what that imaginary kid wants. Unfocused, noisy and way, way too chatty, director David Sandberg’s adaptation of the DC character supplies plenty of routine superhero theatrics and “when I grow up” wish fulfillment, but its eagerness to explore the notion of family at the expense of real character development - and the seeming absence of adult guidance both on and off screen - delivers far too little in the way of true inspiration.
Asher Angel plays Billy Batson, a 14-year-old orphan living in Philadelphia who has devoted his young life to finding his lost mother - much to the consternation of not one but six foster families, and eventually, the authorities. Shuffled off to a seventh home where he immediately inherits five siblings, Billy falls back on old habits and resists the impulse to bond with the other kids. But after stepping in to defend his disabled brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), he gets chased by bullies onto a subway train that magically transports him to the lair of an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou). The wizard bestows Billy with incredible powers that he does not explain how to use, only that they’re meant to defend against the Seven Deadly Sins in physical form, and sends him back to Earth.
Transformed into adult hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), complete with cape and costume, he petitions Freddy to help him discover the limits of his powers. Perhaps predictably, Billy and Freddy quickly become obsessed with each new ability they discover - speed, superhuman strength, control of lightning - and use them to generate some easy money, settle petty grievances, and occasionally, more out of personal edification than moral obligation, stop criminal wrongdoing. But when Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a scientist obsessed since boyhood with his own vision of the ancient wizard, shows up to destroy Shazam and absorb his power, effectively unleashing the evils of the Seven Deadly Sins upon humanity, young Billy is forced to grow up fast and accept a mantle of responsibility for which he may not be ready.
While it’s categorically a great decision to treat DC movies (and virtually all other films) as independent entities rather than cogs in some elaborate, interconnected machine, there’s something almost disappointing about the idea that Shazam! won’t be crossing over with Justice League in the near future. (One could only imagine the geek-out conversations, much less competitions, shared between Billy and Barry Allen, for example.) What this character and concept brings to the DCEU is a true sense of childlike wonder and fun, something that even the best of the earlier films didn’t have. Moreover, there’s something tremendously powerful thematically about the notion of a scared kid trying to overcompensate for his fears inside the body of a comically swole adult superhero - which, spoiler alert, they all are.
Both in spite and because of his overinflated physique, Levi seems ideally cast in the role, bringing the right sort of astonishment to each new twist and turn in his superhero journey. But it’s really the writing, and in many cases overwriting, that undercuts what could have been a marvelously emotional journey for this kid. The arm’s length that Billy holds away from his family is unfortunately extended to the audience as well, and as a result, his chatterbox brother Freddy is assigned the duty of decoding, deconstructing, and explaining every single choice, piece of information, and eventually, motivation that drives him, and it proves exhausting without ever touching on the emotions we’re meant to feel.
Moreover, the movie seems eager to undercut virtually every moment of triumph that Shazam experiences - a funny tactic when he’s rescuing people that he accidentally placed in harm’s way or scrounging for change in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, less so when he’s facing his ultimate enemy and discovering new reserves of strength and determination. But the scenarios that require his abilities almost without exception come from a comic book movie playbook from, like, before the 1978 Superman (which to be clear I am in no way denigrating): at different points, he runs afoul of convenience store robbers, a bus slides off the edge of an overpass, and a Ferris wheel threatens to topple, injuring not only the passengers that we know, but civilians on the ground.
Transitioning into broader-appeal studio fare after making two surprisingly elegant, effective horror films (Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation), David Sandberg proves himself a skillful technician, but it’s clear that some habits die hard for him in terms of managing the intensity of what again should be at least family friendly, if not family-focused. The Seven Deadly Sins are themselves pretty much too scary for a lot of younger viewers, but there are several scenes of violence involving Sivana - including one where he throws a man through a penthouse window - that feel shockingly violent even for a PG-13 film.
Then again, the consequences of those acts are all but completely ignored or forgotten by the film, so maybe they don’t matter too much. That too feels like a story written by kids, where one moment their hero can be bashing in crooks’ skulls and in the next he’s exploiting his Large Adult Son body to gain access to a strip club. But do there need to be quite so many of those digressions and non sequiturs? Or labored, treacly payoffs to the theme of “family” that could actually work and are certainly set up, but are never earned?
In retrospect, I realize that so many of these complaints sound like an adult critiquing a children’s story, or simply failing to account for that imaginary child author’s perspective. But the problem is that the very real people who made this film were adults, and they failed to put their audience into that childlike point of view - be it to understand the ramshackle storytelling or just to identify with this poor lost kid unexpectedly gifted with the powers of a god. Ultimately, Shazam! is probably a little too mature for actual children and too childish for adults, but it’s serviceable enough to warrant a sequel that explores the good, clear ideas introduced in this one. Let’s hope people who are the right age, or at least mindset, make that one.