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Don’t focus on the villain: Shazam! shines when its hero’s in front

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

As Marvel Studios and DC Comics continue to face off in the battle of competing cinematic universes of comic book adaptations, humor has become a defining factor distinguishing the two outputs. Early DC entries Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were written off for — among other problems — being too gloomy.

In a Marvel movie, it’s hard to go a few minutes without a wisecrack or a reference, and although it feels like DC is trying to catch up, DC is known for being darker and gloomier.

While it’s clear that one studio is winning — Avengers: Endgame ticket preorders on April 2 were enough to crash theater chain AMC’s website and become the top first-day pre-sellers on ticket services Atom and Fandango — DC’s latest offering, Shazam!, directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Henry Gayden, is the first of its films to successfully use comedy, and to do so without seeming like a Marvel knockoff.

Mired in a dull villain’s origin for the first chunk of the story, Shazam! really picks up when its protagonist, Billy Batson, is granted the powers of a wizard.

Imbued with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles and speed of Mercury, 14-year-old Billy can turn into a superhero — played by 39-year-old Zachary Levi — just by calling out the exclamation of the movie’s title, an acronym of the ancient heroes’ names.

With his foster brother Freddy by his side, played by fast-talking scene-stealer Jack Dylan Grazer, Billy tests the limits of his powers and learns what it’s like to be a superhero.

Much like classic superhero TV show The Greatest American Hero, a big draw for Shazam! is its introduction of a character who doesn’t fully understand his powers or how to control them. Like a mock version of Marvel’s Iron Man and its hero’s procedural tests of his flying equipment, Shazam! features Freddy and Billy testing the limits of Billy’s newfound powers while becoming famous on YouTube through the phone videos Freddy takes as the hero’s manager. In one scene, Billy shows off a superpower of charging people’s phones an ability that, in the scheme of superhero things, is not a huge deal.

Shazam! often doesn’t try to be anything huge, and that’s great. As a production of New Line Cinema, a Warner Bros. division with smaller releases than tentpole blockbusters, the film keeps its conflicts within the city of Philadelphia and involves no world-ending stakes; though past events referenced imply potential danger, there’s never any sense that Billy’s fighting to save the world.

Too often, superhero movies set the stakes at end-of-the-world levels, as if there’s no such thing as a small threat. It gets old hearing the same dangers, especially with threats so large they go beyond the comprehension or empathy of the audience.

Unlike many other superhero movies, Shazam! does not present its audience with an unwavering moral figure, nor does it offer a polished, finished product of a hero. Billy is a work-in-progress, and in his superhero form, he is ridiculous, selfish, overconfident and cowardly. It makes for a refreshing take on a hero, and Levi has the charisma to pull it off.

The movie falters mostly with its villain, a character provided with a backstory that does nothing to deepen his own motivations or personality.

Mark Strong plays Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a bald villain who says villainous things and acts like a villain. While his story cannot be considered totally predictable, it is filled with so many obvious moments, at points it feels like his family members could just as easily have said, “We’re going to say some mean things so you can eventually become a villain. Here’s a line of dialogue you can hold on to and then repeat dramatically in a few decades when you make the transformation.”

There are a few times when Thad, as he’s called, plays the cartoonish villain, and, in opposition to Billy, it’s a perfect contrast. But mostly, Strong’s performance falls flat as a poorly written villain. At times, it can feel like superhero writers think that in audiences’ desire to have well-rounded, interesting villains, all they need to do is give the villain a little bit of backstory. There’s more to the craft than just telling a bad guy’s history, and even Marvel falls into that pitfall for many of its antagonists.

Loaded with fun moments, Shazam! is an alternate take on the superhero movie that works more than it doesn’t. It does take around half an hour until the story really picks up, and it has a passionless villain who performs acts of gratuitous violence, but when the movie works, it can really work.

It’s not the best DC has had to offer so far — and DC still hasn’t found its great film since the launch of Man of Steel in 2013, but it does present a flawed and funny superhero, at no point perfect, at most times unsure of himself, a step in the right direction for DC’s releases.

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