Thursday, April 4, 2019

A juvenile 'Shazam!' has its virtues

It's not perfect but this kid-oriented superhero movie can be fun.
If you're a fan of comic-book movies, you've probably been engaged in discussions about the meaning of the minutia that pertains to whatever universe about which you happen to find yourself obsessing. Participating in such conversations can be fun, but they do have at least one minimum requirement: Participants must take the genre seriously.

Should you happen to be sick of such seriousness, Shazam!, like the Deadpool movies, provides an antidote. A lesser DC Comics offering becomes an entertaining look at a teenager who's able to transform himself into an adult superhero -- but not in all ways. He remains a teenager in mind, humor, spirit, and outlook. He reverts to his teen body when he has no superhero business to transact.

This approach makes Shazam! a bit juvenile or, to put it more favorably, the movie takes undisguised aim at younger audiences and mostly connects.

We first meet Shazam as Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a kid who has spent his youth in foster homes but hasn't abandoned hope that he can locate his real mother, a woman from whom he was separated as a boy.

Zachary Levi portrays Shazam, the caped, adult semi-crusader who emerges when Billy transforms himself.

How you react to Shazam! depends in large part on how you react to Levi's performance, which can be unabashedly goofy. A superhero of greater stature probably wouldn't be caught dead in Shazam's red outfit. And the movie has fun watching Shazam try to adjust to his grown-up body.

Still, I must admit that I felt a bit of relief when Angel reclaimed the role and the movie returned to a point at which the characters no longer needed to shave.

Shazam! also introduces us to Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong), an abused child who becomes Shazam's adult nemesis.

The movie includes a multicultural kiddie crew of Billy's friends and the screenplay finds a way to integrate them into Shazam's superhero adventures. Moreover, Billy's best friend (Jack Dylan Grazer) becomes a kind of guide for Shazam as he goes through his changes.

Djimon Hounsou portrays the wizard who engineers Billy's transformation, suggesting that young Billy is the long-awaited "champion" that the world needs. Boy am I sick of long-awaited heroes who are supposed to fill a role destiny has set for them, but that's the comic-book world.

In this case, the champion's mission has something to do with being able to vanquish the Seven Deadly Sins, all presented as statues that lurk in the wizard's lair while waiting to spring to life.

Director David F. Sandberg keeps Henry Gayden's script moving until about three-quarters of the way through when we realize that Shazam! -- like so many other movies -- doesn't know when to quit. At 132 minutes in length, the movie would have needed a better story to sustain interest.

Enough. Shazam! launches a superhero franchise that has a quality that shouldn't be dismissed: It doesn't seem to matter much and, in the high-stakes world of other superheroes, that's a definite virtue.

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