Landing in that putative multiplex dead zone between last month's Captain Marvel and the apparently epochal Avengers: Endgame, Shazam! has quickly entered the discourse as "DC only, you know, for kids" - thus distinguishing itself from the 37 other 12A-rated superhero movies to have come our way in the past two years, none of which, if I remember correctly, was exactly Solzhenitsyn. In one respect, however, this new arrival does present as unique. Here is a latex test balloon floated by the studio system to determine whether, in the current climate of manic comic-book consumption, it might be possible to fashion a hit, and perhaps a franchise, from the most basic ingredients: no stars (Mark Strong, Tosker from Our Friends in the North, will be the most recognisable face for UK viewers), a non-name director (David F. Sandberg, of Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation), and next to zero brand recognition. With their casting and marketing heft, the Avengers derivatives are always going to be events of some kind, but Shazam! is Hollywood in Henry Higgins mode, seeing whether it can transform a modest smattering of scraps, rags and cast-offs, the dog-ends of ideas smoked elsewhere in the movie mainstream, into something the comic-book fraternity will eventually want to take home with them on Blu-Ray or DVD.
The task, I'm afraid to say, requires a lot of effort, and generates little in the way of art or magic. The first act labours dispiritingly to put all its pieces in play: we end up at the point where orphaned teen weakling Billy Batson (Asher Angel) inherits a power that transforms him into the eponymous buff six-footer (Zachary Levi), but it takes a full half-hour of mirthless mumbo-jumbo to get there. (At 132 minutes, this is one of those nothings that demands a lot of audience indulgence; the Christmas backdrop suggests it missed at least one production deadline.) Once it's established we're dealing with a kid in a grown man's body, you start to feel the film sliding its feet under the table, and relaxing into the idea of a superhero movie with something of Big or Vice Versa in its DNA - the kind of minor genetic mutation that qualifies as a USP in a stagnant marketplace. Levi-as-Shazam - acting under Billy's commands, remember - first uses his new form to buy beer in a convenience store; when robbers burst through the doors and unleash a fusillade of (deflected) bullets his way, his first response is to ask his sidekick Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) to film it so the clip might go viral. Switching between identities as if operating a lightswitch - this is DC doing superhero casual, lest we forget - Billy/Shazam is the first time this cycle has foreground the kind of manchild traditionally thought to frequent superhero movies. Whether Shazam! does anything interesting or challenging with the character is another matter.
The best this painfully ordinary script comes up with is to pitch the character into a series of skits, an approach that might work if Levi, a neutered Ben Affleck, were less bland of a focal point (seriously: you spent two hours watching the guy, and you still couldn't pick his face out of a line-up at the end of them) or had recognisable jokes rather than spitballing references to deliver. Shazam is a PG-13 Deadpool, and nobody would need one of those had we not all been conditioned to respond to these things like trained seals awaiting fish. Nothing should forgive the brazen unoriginality of the training montage set to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now", and everybody's stepping close to that line when, mid-pursuit, Shazam runs across a toy store's electronic floor piano. The discordant notes struck here only serve to remind us how Big had a story, some heart, and most of all a worldview that a disposable popcorn-shifter like this doesn't have anything like the maturity to set forth; gestures, whether derivative or empty, are all Shazam! has, and you feel it killing time until our hero and Strong - as a rent-a-baddie identified chiefly by his dodgy eye - can start laying waste to several city blocks. That confrontation throws up the movie's only worthwhile joke - premised on the haphazard nature of shouting speeches into space - but by then we're galloping towards the final affirmation of manboyism, and the promise of starrier, more substantial adventures to come. You enjoyed these titbits, didn't you? Good boy.
It has the same shape as its superhero predecessors, then, but only a small measure of their slickness and - I use the term guardedly - dramatic weight. Where the Marvel machine carries on churning out rounded product on a bi-monthly basis, DC continue to deal in flabby grabbags of ideas, with only its wilder notions (Aquaman, the Snyder cut) seeming to gain any traction. In playing very safe and nice, Shazam! only reveals itself as a good deal more threadbare than its predecessors; indeed, up until its VFX-heavy finale, which is evidently where the bulk of its budget went, the film's chief identifying feature is its cheapness. Nondescript frame after nondescript frame bears out the production values of the average Vancouver-shot TV movie, which would be fine for the TV movie in question, but strikes one as more than faintly depressing to see in the #1 movie on the planet right now, because it suggests audiences (and many critics) have given up expecting anything more from their blockbuster entertainments. Given the heightened levels of excess and repetition in this particular cinematic field, given that we have the three (count 'em, three) hours of Endgame hanging over us all like a spandexed Schindler's List, I can just about see why some have found something cheering in Shazam!'s return to basics, its humble artisanal quest to patch 21st century effects work into the generally analogue work being done in this field twenty-to-twenty-five years ago. Yet it is basic, as basic - and about as nutritionally rewarding - as chewing on cardboard or straw for two hours and twelve minutes.
Shazam! is now playing in cinemas nationwide.