★★★★ - STUFF
A pretty legendary New Zealand film editor is fond of saying that when a film gets boring towards the end, the problem is usually to be found at the beginning.
I do like a film that doesn't bother to muck around with a lot of tedious scene setting and exposition, but just drops us in to the action without any preamble. That way, when you walk out of your screening of Shazam!, you might be surprised to find 131 minutes of your precious time has passed, instead of the 100 minutes or so you would have bet on.
Any film that feels shorter than it actually is, is a film that is getting a lot of things right.
Shazam! opens fast. Within five minutes, we have been whisked out of 1970s middle-America and into some sort of magic castle, complete with a comically inappropriate wizard, seven imprisoned demons and really very little clue as to what is going on. Then we're immediately in present-day Philadelphia, watching – finally – a bit of backstory about a completely different and apparently unrelated character. Then we're in the castle again. It's a dizzying and deeply enjoyable set up. By the time Shazam! does pause for breath and sits us down to explain some plot, we're invested in its world enough already to actually enjoy the explanation.
And Shazam! really does need all the help it can get. Because this is a deeply, proudly and joyfully silly film.
What Shazam! does differently is to acknowledge how daft the traditional superhero origin story is.
Even when the actual plot proves to be anything but original, Shazam!'s approach to the story is still fresh and fun enough to keep us playing along.
The whole kid-gets-chosen-to-be-superhero thing has been done a thousand times. If you substitute "radioactive spider" for "lonely wizard in purple bathrobe", then Shazam! isn't too far away from the Spider-Man origin blueprint. The high-school setting, the new-found powers and the comedy inherent in watching our hero learning to use them are cut from the same cloth. But what Shazam! does differently is to acknowledge how daft the story is, mainly by dressing the hero up in a truly ridiculous costume, and then setting him in motion in a modern-day world that knows more about how a comic-book superhero should act than he does himself.
There's in-jokes and references here by the score, so that even when the actual plot proves to be anything but original (super-villain turns up, must be defeated yadda yadda) the approach to the story is still fresh and fun enough to keep us playing along.
At various times, Shazam! reminded me of Big, Kick-Ass, Hell Boy, Ghostbusters and, yes, a few of the best Spider-Man movies. The Big influence even gets a sweet little acknowledgement. But the point is, me and most people I know absolutely adore all of those films.
So while Shazam! might not quite have the originality or audacity of a future classic, it does enough, in exactly the right way, to send an audience out into the night smiling.
In a genre that often tries way too hard to be taken seriously, Shazam! is a pile of good-natured fun. If this, Wonder Woman and Aquaman are any indication of DC's new direction and tone, then consider me a fan.
-Graeme Tuckett, STUFF