It’s generally accepted that, as comic book universes go, Marvel is the outfit that employs a lighter touch, whereas DC habitually plays things dark and po-faced. So Shazam! is clearly an attempt to give the latter franchise a kick up the spandex-clad backside, playing things primarily for laughs and making a pretty good job of it. Unfortunately, the tone of the film tends to veer alarmingly back to the dark side every now and then and, whenever it does, the momentum is temporarily lost and has to be recaptured.
Shazam! began life back in 1939 as a comic, where the central superhero was known (rather confusingly, given recent film history) as Captain Marvel, but the origins story remains pretty much intact. This is the tale of young orphan, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who loses his young mother in a crowd one day and, years later, is still desperately trying to find her. For no good reason, an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounso) gifts him with the ability to transform himself into the titular superhero, Shazam (Zachary Levi). But before we see that origins story, we are obliged to sit through another one, a scene from the childhood of Thaddeus Sivana, who will one day grow up to be played by Mark Strong and who will be a very bad egg indeed.
To be honest, the opening twenty minutes of the film are a bit of a trial – indeed, I am actually considering walking out of the screening until Billy’s first transformation occurs and the film takes a huge step in the right direction. The central conceit – what would a superhero be like if he was actually a fourteen year old boy? – is a bit of a masterstroke and Shazam’s early attempts to come to grips with his newfound abilities, aided by his nerdy friend, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), are laugh-out-loud funny. Likewise, Billy’s interplay with the foster parents who take him on is nicely done with some lovely dialogue between him and the other kids in the group home.
But of course, it’s only a matter of time before a grown-up Dr Thaddeus Sivana shows his face and matters lurch straight back to the dark side. Sivana has managed to find a way to channel the seven deadly sins, giving himself superpowers of an altogether more sinister kind than Billy’s. A scene where Sivana flings his older brother through the window of a skyscraper and then orders his brutish parasites to chow down on a boardroom full of businesspeople (one of whom is his father) does not sit particularly well with the humorous stuff I’ve just been enjoying so much.
The film continues to seesaw its way along in this disconcerting fashion and I find myself constantly having to reassess my position on it. For the most part, it’s enjoyable stuff and even the distressingly long, CGI-assisted final confrontation is, I suppose, par for the course in a superhero movie. There’s a brief coda that provides a brilliant last laugh and a post credits sequence that suggests the possibility of a sequel. I’m not sure this idea has the legs to go very much further, but Shazam! is, for the most part, entertaining and, unlike so many comic book movies of recent years, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Which, when I think about it, may be the best recommendation of all.