The latest attempt for DC to crack the code for an extended universe is upon us, and this one is actually one of their better attempts. While the state of the DCEU is in a very tenuous state at the moment, Shazam rides in with a fresh take on the super hero film with a few setbacks that keep it as more of a middling affair- which is still an improvement for Warner Brothers who are on pivot number 4,837 for their cinematic world of DC comics.
The beginning of Shamaz is rocky. The first third of the film is defined by jarring tonal inconsistencies, and each shift feels like a miniature car crash in the theater. Seconds after watching a grown man act like a 14 (?) year old kid, we jump to the most sinister man in the history of the world engaging in a shockingly cruel and horrific attack in a scene that desperately wants to be un-muzzled and R-rated. This tonal shock is compounded early on by the film just flat out having too many sloppy moments. There are characters who just kind of show up and they’ll have things that they shouldn’t have which lead to the viewer being confused and asking the sort of questions which are to expected from a suspect film. Early on things are not looking good.
This is made worse by an antagonist that is tragically one dimensional. I know these are comic book films, but the villains don’t have to be comically evil. Mark Strong plays…*checks IMDB* Dr. Sivana, a man whose mustache twirling villainy can only be matched by the absurd cruelty of his father and brother. Their complete wretchedness is straight out of a parody, and thus fail to hit the mark in terms of making the villain sympathetic. What little sympathy may have been present is completely washed away in the bloodbath he engages his, as this antagonist has no character; he is just man who is evil. At no point in the film does he even present a different side to the antagonist that could be interesting or make the audience consider his point of view. He is comically evil in the beginning, and he maintains a laser-accurate trajectory throughout the length of the film to be comically evil at the end.
As much as this film has going against it after the first act, the impossible happens: it starts to turn things around. The film starts to settle in, and the middle portion of the film rises far beyond what could be expected following the introductions. Suddenly, the film is genuinely funny, the characters who are actually of quality start to shine through, and it even has a resonating emotional high point within the film.
Our protagonist, Billy Batson, has been bouncing from foster home to foster home for years as he searches for his birth mother who he was separated from at a very young age. He refuses to accept any new home, as he knows that his real home is still out there. As he searches, he begins to get to know some of the other foster kids in his newest stop- oh, and he also obtained super powers- and unbeknownst to him, he begins to form actual bonds. Once he actually tracks down his birth mother- with the help of the other foster kids- he realizes that she is actual horrible trash, and that he’d already found his real home. This is a very solid and emotional moment from a film which appeared to have no business producing anything of such quality from the first third of its runtime. This ends up being the central theme of the film, and moments such as this make it a strong one. In hindsight, the horrible way in which the antagonist was treated by his own family was also an attempt to contribute towards this central theme, though it is far too clunky to be effective.
What initially felt like something headed straight towards the dumpster had managed to recover and turn into a pretty fun film leading into the climax, which is part of what makes the climax itself disappointing. It is not poor in the way that the intro is, but it takes a few steps back from the higher points in the middles section of the film. Throughout the film, we have watched as our hero has struggled to not only discover what it means to be a hero and the proper way to utilize his powers, but how to even control them. One of the first powers that he and his new “brother” Freddy investigate is whether Billy as Shazam can fly. They quickly rule it out only to discover later that he can in fact fly…poorly. Billy discovers this during his first encounter with evil-man, but he cannot do it effectively at all. Billy’s increased control over his powers are representations of his increased acceptance of being a super hero, of his new family, and his overall increased maturity brought about by those realizations. This comes to its exciting finish when he at last knows precisely what he needs to do, and he transforms and is able to fly at high speed instantly in order to save his family.
This moment is the high point of the entire film, as our hero has finally grown and learned what he must do with this newfound responsibility.
This is an earned moment forged by the mistakes and growth of our protagonist; we sat around for quite a while as he got his feet wet and grew into the character he needed to be to save the day. The climactic finale should have been him showcasing his growth by being able to utilize the full breadth of his power to defeat evil-man. To a certain extent he does, but the film’s theme gets in the way of a clean finale. Remember, this is a film about family as much as it is a coming of age story for Billy. As such, Billy decides that in order to win, he needs to share his power with his family. This results in five additional Shazams running around and fighting evil-man and his shadow monsters in the big finale. While it certainly fits the theme, it causes the film to take a step back and return to its early portions before the protagonist has grown. What is the point of watching Billy spend all this time growing and maturing if we are just going to watch a repeat of his immaturity at the end? Sure it nets a few laughs, but it overall detracts from the payoff of the finale.
Ultimately, Shazam is a fine film. A rough beginning gives way to a fun and well-crafted middle sections which sets us up for a big finish which can’t quite deliver. It is not the best that DC and Warner Brothers have to offer, that is still Wonder Woman by a tight margin, but it is a definite improvement on what they have been putting out otherwise. Aquaman may be kind of stupid, but it does have plenty of visual spectacle, the aforementioned Wonder Woman still has the best singular moment for the DCEU, and now Shazam has come along and thrown in some fun and levity to this universe which is still finding its way- if that is what Warner Brothers even wants anymore. There is definite progress being made, and while they are still unable to hit the high points their competition has been able to produce, this is a substantial improvement over the likes of Batman v Superman and Justice League.