There's a movie hiding not very deep at all into Shazam! that is exactly what the superhero genre needs right about now: something stripped down and intimate, a bright little character comedy about how kids love superheroes and fantasise about being them and then one gets a chance to be one in actuality. But using actual studio resources and an actually significant superhero, rather than the scruffy little indies that have covered similar territory in the past, and a straightforward all-ages adventure rather than the sardonic revisionist stuff that those indies were. I mean, maybe I'm being greedy, because we just had basically that with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but that's like, art. Shazam! isn't art and doesn't want to be art. It just wants to be a blissed-out, rather pointedly low-key lark, a downright square movie when we get right down to it.

I say that this movie is hiding in Shazam! and not that this movie is Shazam! for really only one reason. Or maybe two inextricably yoked reasons. The thing is, the movie is too long - I know, I say every movie is too long. But Shazam! is fully forty minutes too long, a 132-minute slab of a thing, and given how earnestly it seems to want to pare back the accretions of the interconnected superhero universe game (I think this is officially connected to the greater DC comics movie universe, but those connections feel made entirely in the spirit of good-natured mockery), that running time crushes its soul. Not least because of how much of those unnecessary minutes come right at the start: you could pretty easily chop the first 20 minutes of Shazam! and lose not one germane plot point that won't be clearly repeated later, and on top of that, you'd be getting us to the good stuff 20 minutes sooner.

And it is enormously clear, almost to the minute, when "the good stuff" happens. Shazam! is based on one of more offbeat DC superheroes, a Superman clone named Captain Marvel who debuted in 1940, under ownership of Fawcett Comics. After DC sued the character out of existence, they bought the rights to use him themselves in 1972, by which point Marvel Comics had come out with their own very different character named Captain Marvel, forcing DC to publish their character's adventures under the title Shazam! (though the character himself retained the name Captain Marvel until the 2010s, at which point he was indeed renamed Shazam). Yes, Marvel's Captain Marvel (or anyway, the seventh incarnation), just got her own feature film not even a full month before DC's. Yes, this seems like it's probably petty corporate dick-measuring.

Anyway, the Fawcett/DC Captain Marvel/Shazam is, in all versions, the magical alter-ego of a teen orphan named Billy Batson, who by saying the word "shazam" can transform into, well, Superman. But in red with a white cape instead of blue with a red cape, and with a lightning bolt instead of an "S". To do absolutely anything whatsoever to distinguish him from the better-known (and also just plain better) superhero, the character was slightly reconceived in the 1980s, so that he was basically always Billy Batson, a jubilant adolescent given the ability to wield godlike powers.

And this is where we finally get to our new movie, and the good stuff: which is, indeed, very good. Billy is played by Disney Channel alum Asher Angel, his superhero form is played by Zachary Levi, and the character's only friend, foster sibling Freddy Freeman, is played Jack Dylan Grazer, and the three performers are up to some genuine magic together. In the film's telling, Billy is a pretty standard-issue helpless optimist cloaking himself in heavy blanket of cynicism so nobody can tell how giddy and enthusiastic he can get; Angel and Levi play these emotions off of each other in perfect balance, with Billy having the creeping hope spark out through his nervous expressions, and Shazam being all boyish goofiness until something toxic and self-satisfied washes over him. The two actors make such a neatly matched set that I almost immediately forgot I was even watching two rather substantially different approaches to the character(s) - Levi is playing someone a bit younger and a lot giddier than Angel - particularly with Grazer acting as an anchor for both of his scene partners. And this perfect embodiment of the film's central friendship spreads out into Billy's foster family, consisting of five other kids (most importantly the very young Darla, an easily awestruck chatterbox played to perfection by Faithe Herman), each of whom is too weirdly specific to come across as just the types they've been written as.

The film is so good at depicting the ins and outs of this family group, as well as the gee-whiz astonishment and self-entitlement of Billy's new power, that it's an active disappointment whenever Shazam! feels compelled to leave it for its story about a bitter Shazam wannabe named Sivana (Mark Strong) who ends up the vessel for a team of demons representing the seven deadly sins. It's perfectly adequate, and Strong's performance is a great deal more distinct than most comic book villains get - he's a tetchy spoiled brat, grown up only physically but still nursing childhood wounds, and Strong puts this across without making the character seem silly or unthreatening - but it's all extremely samey. And despite screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg trying their best, the plot falls into this horrible anti-sweet spot, where the film has gone small and intimate enough that the conflict feels tiny, the way Ant-Man and the Wasp managed, but the stakes are explicitly All Of Humanity. So on the one hand, the plot feels to heavy and elaborate for a film whose best moments involve teen boys goofing off, and on the other hand the film is too wispy and frivolous for the laborious work of expositing and carrying off its story, especially with that inexcusable runtime attached to it.

The film does plenty of things right in capturing the more casual vibe of a pre-2005 superhero movie: Shazam's playfully chintzy-looking suit is an obvious stand-out here, the brightest and happiest visual element in a film whose cinematography, courtesy of Maxime Alexandre, is dominated by saturated colors and clear, bright lighting. So is the film's generally dumpy array of settings: the biggest setpiece takes place at a traveling carnival, festively tricked out for Christmas (the film is wildly Christmassy, which is an unexpected choice, but ultimately an effective one), exactly the kind of rinky-dink small town setting that comic book movies and other fantasy films on a budget made use of all the damn time in the '90s. It's not that Shazam! is trying to rewind filmmaking 25 years - it's a 2019 tentpole, with all the CGI and everything - but it seems to sense that the simple dumb superhero movies of a generation ago had a lighter feeling, an insouciance that has been mostly wiped out by the increasingly beefy, overwrought comic book movies made by Disney, Warners, and Fox in the 2010s. And recapturing the look of those older films is part of how Shazam! wants to capture their vibe.

It only partially works, mostly because Sandberg is some kind of wicked genius at directing child actors (see also Annabelle: Creation, a film which in no other way feels like the work of the same director), and that in turn brings in the breezy Amblin-esque tone of the film's best moments, which are all about letting sentiment inflect physical comedy. When that part of the film is turned on, Shazam! is utterly delightful. It's just that it gets turned off a lot, and a film that keeps stepping away from its obvious strengths is somehow more frustrating than a film that doesn't have those strengths to begin with.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder / Whedon, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (Snyder, 2021)
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021)