MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Shazam!’ Bolts To Strong Start, But Its Conclusion Is Low Voltage

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Two stars out of four

By Michael Clark Movie Critic

After a bunch of installments that were all too long, dour and overcooked, the brain trust at Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ Extended Universe decided to lighten up, make movies people actually liked and maybe, just maybe, they could compete with genre champion Marvel.

With “Wonder Woman,” DC finally broke the curse and produced its lone good movie in seven attempts. While last year’s “Aquaman” was played mostly as comedy, it reeked to high heaven but still crushed at the box office.

While nowhere near as putrid as “Aquaman,” the alleged “kid friendly” “Shazam!” finds itself in a demographic nether region by being too cutesy for most adults and too dark for most children and pre-teens.

For its first 30 intolerable minutes, “Shazam!” charts the childhood histories of the principal hero and villain and all of it is depressing. The bad guy — Thaddeus Sivana (played as an adult by Mark Strong) — is relentlessly berated and ridiculed by his father and brother, and if that isn’t enough of a buzz kill, he is told by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou — imitating Dumbledore by way of Samuel L. Jackson) that he’s not “the chosen one.” It’s no wonder some children drift to the dark side.

Life isn’t much better for Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Abandoned by his teen mother at a carnival when he is a tyke, he’s been searching for her ever since while bouncing from one foster home to the next. He’s got the world-weary attitude of a middle-aged man, but when summoned by the same wizard gets something of a new lease on life.

It is at his newest politically correct/rainbow coalition home that Billy meets Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a physically challenged motor mouth desperate for a sibling he can relate to. But Billy will have none of it.

The two eventually bond when Billy utters the magic word “shazam” and immediately transforms into an adult in the form of Zachary Levi (imagine Jimmy Fallon on steroids). With a costume that makes him look more like a hot dog spokesperson than superhero, Billy — mostly by trial and error — begins to discover his powers.

With Freddy recording everything on his phone, the bulletproof Billy can move at light speed, shoot lightning bolts from his hands and he eventually learns to fly. The trouble is Billy still has the mind of a self-absorbed prepubescent boy and — as Freddy points out — spends most of his time posing for selfies with his newfound fans and doing tricks on the streets of Philadelphia for loose change.

If this “man-child” premise sounds vaguely similar to you, you’re not alone. Take away all of the comic book trappings and what you’re left with is a less interesting, overlong version of “Big.” This is not a point lost on the filmmakers who include scenes lifted directly from “Big” — the most obvious being two men playing an oversized piano with their feet.

While about half of the 132 minutes of “Shazam!” is family safe, the other half certainly is not. In addition to the turbulent formative years already mentioned, the bulk of the third act finds Billy’s five new siblings being held hostage by Sivana and his crew — disturbing apparitions of the Seven Deadly Sins — which could cause more than a few youngsters to wake up screaming in terror in the dead of night. Parents should be prepared for considerable negative blowback from their impressionable children both during and after watching this movie.

Given the cost, potential return and high profile of “Shazam!” it is dumbfounding that the studio put the fate of the movie in the hands of two relative novices. The only previous feature by screenwriter Henry Gayden is the obscure 2014 “Earth to Echo” and longtime shorts director David F. Sandberg’s sole full-length film was the halfway-decent 2016 horror flick “Lights Out.”

Without giving too much away, the filmmakers jump the shark by including a wrinkle which is straight from “Iron Man 3” — a twist that is more “Scooby-Doo” than superhero. Two mid-closing credits scenes all but guarantee at least one sequel — and given there won’t be another comic book-based movie (the over-three-hour-long “Avengers: Endgame) out until April 26, “Shazam!” has plenty of time to clean up at the box-office.

(New Line/Warner Bros.)

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