Following the unqualified success of “Wonder Woman,” the equally unqualified failure of “Justice League” and that time they let James Wan dose the entire world with a cocktail of crack cocaine, LSD and seaweed, it’s safe to say that the future of the DC films slate is somewhat in flux, to say nothing of the numerous behind-the-scenes shake-ups. The burden was on “Shazam!” (along with “Aquaman”) to shine a light on where things are going next. Are they going to keep trying to chase that most elusive of white whales, the Marvel-style shared universe? Or are the rumors true that they’ll focus more on individual stories rather than risk another “Justice League”-caliber cinematic belly flop? If “Shazam!” is any indication, its definitely the latter, but that doesn’t necessarily result in a better movie, as DC shows that even with a brighter coat of paint, they are committed to doing little more than the bare minimum in search of superhero success.
“Shazam!” has been billed as a classic sort of family movie in the vein of “Big,” and not just in terms of story — we’ve been told it’ll pack thrills and laughs for parents and children alike, and to an extent it does just that. In the title role, Zachary Levi (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) brings the youthful enthusiasm and boundless, likeable energy that’s made him a nerd icon to a role he was born to play: a teenager with the ability to transform into an adult superhero. Again, the parallels to “Big” almost write themselves. The message about the importance of family is a nice touch, as well, and if the movie is anything more than the sum of its parts, it’s because of the emotion Levi and costars Asher Angel (“Andi Mack”) and Jack Dylan Grazer (“It”) wring out of their scenes as foster brothers.
“Shazam!” is an old-fashioned movie in another way, though — like last year’s “Venom,” it’s the kind of superhero movie that was getting made before we knew they were capable of more. It feels like it’s from a time where it was enough to cast a couple likeable actors, put one of them in a supersuit and have them punch bad guys with the exact same power set as them, but it’s 2019, and the genre has moved on. “Black Panther” just won three Oscars and got nominated for Best Picture. “Into the Spiderverse” was one of the best movies of last year and opened an entire multiverse of possibilities for animation going forward. DC’s own “Wonder Woman” dragged the genre kicking and screaming into an era it should have entered long ago, but two years later, DC is back to playing catch-up, not with Marvel, but with superhero filmdom itself.
I’m not saying that every superhero movie has to be a success on the level of those films; that would be deeply unfair. But a little effort outside of the bare minimum is a necessity at this point. Write a three-dimensional cast, or a villain worthy of the actor you cast in the role or something interesting. That’s where these movies — where any movies — live and breathe. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” doesn’t have a good story, but what it does have that makes it easy to return to is a great cast of characters. Outside of Billy Batson (Angel/Levi) and Freddy Freeman (Grazer) not a single member of the cast of “Shazam!” gets a personality outside of their one quirk: the one who plays video games, the one going to college, the one who … talks, etc. Then there’s Mark Strong (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) as Thaddeus Sivana, a villain who stops the film cold whenever he appears. His requisite CGI cohorts, despite ostensibly being the driving force of the plot, apparently don’t even merit the effort it would take to animate their mouths moving when they speak.
“Shazam!” isn’t necessarily a step backward for DC, because at the very least, they’ve stopped mucking around in monochromatic doom and gloom, but it’s representative of something just as bad: stagnation. It’s good for a chuckle here and there and anything that gets Levi’s name on a marquee will always be somewhat welcome to me, but its overly simplistic story and underwritten characters are reminiscent of an era comic book movies are quickly leaving behind. If DC wants a chance at keeping up, they need to understand that adding a few jokes isn’t the solution, it’s taking a page from the superhero handbook and becoming something more.