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"SHAZAM!"
(2019) (Zachary Levi, Mark Strong) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Superhero Action: A 14-year-old boy gains the ability to turn into an adult superhero and must use that to battle a villain who wants his powers.
PLOT:
Billy Batson (ASHER ANGEL) is a 14-year-old boy who's searched for his long-lost mom for years even while being moved from one foster home to another. His latest stop is with Rosa (MARTA MILANS) and Victor Vasquez (COOPER ANDREWS) who have a number of foster kids. They include Mary (GRACE FULTON) who's preparing to go to college, big-time gamer Eugene (IAN CHEN), shy Pedro (JOVAN ARMAND) and precocious young Darla (FAITHE HERMAN).

But it's the similarly aged Freddy (JACK DYLAN GRAZER) who becomes Billy's friend. When Billy ends up defending Freddy from some older high school bullies, the teen escapes into the subway system where he's magically teleported into a mystical cave where he meets Shazam (DJIMON HOUNSOU). He's the keeper of the Rock of Eternity and guard of the seven deadly sins who are currently trapped in statues. Shazam is looking for someone pure of heart to replace him, and before he knows it, Billy is suddenly transformed into an adult superhero (ZACHARY LEVI) and returned to the regular world.

There, he and Freddy test his powers that include being impervious to bullets and having the ability to fly and otherwise zip around at ultra-high-speeds. That draws the attention of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (MARK STRONG) who similarly was transported into that mystical cave as a boy decades ago but was not chosen. Ever since then, he's been obsessed with finding a way back there and he eventually does where he manages to unleash and now control those deadly sins that appear as large monsters. Now realizing that Billy has the powers and abilities he believes should be his, Thaddeus sets out to get them from the teen who's still trying to figure out how to handle and control his new superpowers.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Most readers under 40 probably won't know what I'm referencing, but a long, long time ago on a TV set now far, far away, there was a TV sitcom about a good-natured but naive gas station attendant from the town of Mayberry, North Carolina who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Yes, for those old enough to remember, I'm referring to Gomer Pyle and his show "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."

Segueing from his work on "The Andy Griffith Show," lead actor Jim Nabors created a highly memorable and enjoyable character who often used exaggerated exclamations such as "Goll-lee…" ("golly") and "Shazam." I always assumed those were just his single-word reactions to things that astonished him in the Corps. But now having seen the latest offering from the D.C. Comics movie universe, I know what was really happening. Gomer was trying to revert to his boyish self to avoid being barked at as an adult by the always perturbed Sgt. Carter.

Unlike what occurs in "Shazam!", however, that transformative word apparently was broken back then as Pyle said it a lot, but never reverted to his teenage alter-ego. I jest, of course (or do I?) as it's unlikely that was the intention, although the comic book character who eventually became that titular one was around for several decades before Gomer shook up the Marines.

Of course, back then the character was known as Captain Marvel. Yes, the same one who just had her own movie following the gender switcheroo of that character. After decades of being known as CM (and causing a copyright infringement case for being just a bit too similar to Superman in superhero abilities), the character was rechristened Shazam in 2011 and a movie based on him has been in production limbo for a while.

And maybe that was a good thing as D.C. Comics' recent iterations of its beloved characters went through a dark and otherwise far too solemn phase that allowed the more flippant Marvel counterparts to rule the genre. But the lightening up that started with "Wonder Woman" and continued through "Aquaman" continues in this offering that's the most fun movie -- in terms of simply being entertaining -- from that comic book line since perhaps the 1978 Christopher Reeve version of "Superman."

Yes, it's an origins story and follows the familiar tale of a less than happy kid, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who unexpectedly finds himself in possession of superhero powers and all of the responsibility that comes along with that. But before he visits a mystical cave and encounters his eventual namesake (Djimon Hounsou) where he earns the ability to transform into a 14-year-old inside a man's body without making a wish from a Zoltar fortune teller, we see the kid trying to find his long-lost mom.

When that's unsuccessful, he's placed in yet another foster home, this time with a bevy of foster siblings, one of which, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), serves as his new best friend. As well as the catalyst for what follows as Billy escapes into a subway after serving up some comeuppance on two high school bullies who were just picking on his new sibling.

After the cave visit, Billy returns home in the body of a young, buff man complete with a cape and costume with a large lightning bolt adorning his chest. What follows -- as directed by David F. Sandberg from a script by Henry Gayden -- is plenty of entertaining material as the two teens experiment with Billy's abilities that segue from goofy things like trying to buy beer to stopping two armed robbers via a Superman-esque ability to repel bullets. And yes, there's even a brief visual nod to Tom Hanks playing a slightly similar character in "Big."

Unbeknownst to them, another kid previously "visited" that same cave decades earlier, but wasn't chosen to become the new Shazam. Instead, he grew up into a man (played by Mark Strong) determined to return there and obtain what he now rightfully believes should have been his. And when he does and unleashes the monstrous spirits of the seven deadly sins, we know it's only a matter of time before there's a big, knockdown, put-down showdown between him and Shazam.

Speaking of time, one of the film's flaws is that it's too long -- clocking in at 132 minutes -- with much of that stemming from those third act, rock 'em, sock 'em battles between the hero and villain. While such violence apparently is obligatory nowadays and despite all involved injecting some humor into that unoriginal battle footage, all of that's really the film's weakest material as it feels like a leftover from the previous D.C. regime mindset (with characters bashing others, including through buildings and such).

It doesn't help that the villain is rather two-dimensional at best (compare him to Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in the aforementioned Superman movie if you want to see my point), so the conflict, confrontations, and violence just aren't that engaging, interesting or entertaining. Which is a shame because so much of the rest of the film is exactly that, especially as related to the performance by Zachary Levi as the adult version of the title character.

Thankfully, those third-act issues don't derail the overall offering, but they do have me imagining Sgt. Carter yelling at Private Pyle something along the lines of "What were you thinking, Pyle!?!" to which the character would likely say "shazam" but find himself still trapped in the Corps as an adult. You won't feel trapped watching "Shazam!" but might wish it was twenty to thirty minutes shorter with a better villain and third act. It rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed March 13, 2019 / Posted April 5, 2019


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