Directed by David F. Sandberg
Starring Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
Superhero movies have become, let’s face it, such joyless behemoths—they have either become mechanized tent poles propping up the fortunes of entire studios or sullen explorations of Great Themes, cracking the occasional joke through gritted teeth. The “why so serious?” aesthetic is so prevalent that, just by embracing its mandate to have fun, Shazam! feels like an idea whose time has come—a blast of fresh air for a genre already becoming musty from its own earnestness.
Shazam! feels less like a superhero movie and more like a throwback to 80s kid comedies like The Goonies, Weird Science and, more pointedly, Big (which gets a specific mention during one chase scene)—silly yet sincere stories of adolescents awkwardly trying on the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood—and by being so, manages to lovingly capture the silliness and sincerity of the whole superhero genre. It opens with a young, bullied tween who grows into an embittered adult named Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), scarred because he was offered unimaginable powers by a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, going on another superhero tour of duty after Captain Marvel, Aquaman, and Guardians of the Galaxy) yet failed to make the cut because he was not “pure of heart.” Obsessed at getting a second shot, Sivana tracks down the wizard and enlists the Seven Deadly Sins as his cohorts in villainy.
Desperate for a champion upon whom to bestow his powers, the wizard lights upon Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old foster-care kid doggedly tracking down his mother after being separated from her during an amusement park visit when he was little. By saying the wizard’s name, Billy can transform into an adult superhero (Chuck’s Zachary Levi) with the superhuman abilities of six mythical figures. (Hint: the first letters of their names form the acronym SHAZAM.)
More hijinks and superpowers:
The whole saving-the-world-from-a-mystical-threat storyline is really just a line upon which to hang the film’s real agenda: exploring all the goofy ways in which adolescents learn about the truths of life by testing, stretching and abusing them. Crucial to this exercise is how convincingly Angel’s reading of the orphan Billy corresponds to the tone of Levi’s performance as his superhero counterpart. Turns out the answer is not to sweat it: Angel can be as prickly and self-possessed as he needs to be because being the clumsy and unfettered Levi (with his “stupid adult hands”) is the only time he can have a blast. Ironically, it is when he is the foster child that Billy acts like an adult, and when he is the adult superhero that he acts like a kid.
Billy has been placed in the care of a couple (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) who are fostering five other orphans, and he forms an attachment with one in particular: self-proclaimed superhero expert Freddy Freeman (It’s Jack Dylan Grazer). He gleefully tests and catalogues Billy’s newfound powers while trying to use his association with the new hero on the block to score popularity points at school. It can be argued that Grazer is the real heart of the movie—his equal parts gawky and sarcastic Freddy exemplifies our wonder at living in a world where chosen people can fly and dress like bats and charge cellphones with the point of a finger. (It’s worth noting, though, that adorable moppet Faithe Herman, playing demonstrative foster sister Darla Dudley, gives Grazer a run for his money as Shazam!’s resident scene-stealer.)
Director David F. Sandberg, relishing the chance to display his comedy bonafides after horror outings in Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, so gets into the spirit of hijinks that going about the business of establishing an origin story becomes a bit of a letdown. The only time the movie’s momentum flags is when it is obligated to choreograph mid-air fights and citywide destruction—basically, stuff we’ve seen Zack Snyder do. But even then, Shazam! turns things around at the end to deliver a heartfelt message about found families. Shazam! is the DC Extended Universe letting loose; it is a laugh-out-loud delight, a pure joy to behold.