The Pitch: A rebellious misfit hopping from one foster home to another, young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) longs to find his real birth mother, who abandoned him as a child. But fate intervenes when Billy is summoned to the cave of a dying wizard (Djimon Hounsou, starring in his second Captain Marvel movie in as many months) who tasks him to take his powers: when he says “Shazam!”, Billy grows into a six-foot-tall, ridiculously-proportioned adult version of himself (Zachary Levi), complete with bright-red tights and a spangly white cape.
At first, the prospect of becoming a flying, bulletproof, invincible superhero is really cool, especially as his nerdy new foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) helps him test his newfound powers. But it turns out that with great power comes, well, all that other stuff, as the villainous Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) arrives to steal his abilities and wreak havoc on Philadelphia, and then the world.
When The Levi Breaks: Not a moment too soon, the DCEU seems to be pivoting away from Zack Snyder-esque grimacing and assertions that a murderous Batman is just realistic, you guys. First, there was the invigorating and complex Wonder Woman, later the candy-colored camp of Wet Thor; now, along comes Shazam! to fully break the DC curse. It feels like a lifetime has passed since audiences heard Ben Affleck asking a scowling Henry Cavill if he bled; while those characters ostensibly live in this universe — Freddy owns a replica Batarang and overpaid for an authentic bullet that bounced off Superman — it doesn’t feel like it inhabits the same dim, despairing world of so many other DC movies.
Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) doesn’t reinvent the wheel — rest assured, this is superhero filmmaking by way of Amblin Entertainment, Billy Batson’s adventures more reminiscent of The Goonies than The Avengers. There’s a refreshing ’80s-throwback feel to the proceedings, with wide-eyed child protagonists navigating their way around the machinations of scowling villains, with more than a puzzle or two to solve in the film’s climax. As the titular character, Levi never has to feel like a big, tough hero. His strength is as a schlubby everyman, Shazam! mining no shortage of comedy from his ebullient, childlike glee as his dorky head sticks out of the beefed-out costume that covers the rest of his body.
Super Term 12: Like the ’80s Spielberg films to which it’s paying clear homage, Shazam! manages to balance its irreverent goofball antics with a surprisingly emotional nucleus around which all the gags orbit. Despite featuring a superhero who can single-handedly take on any foe, Shazam! is an earnest film about the importance of family, even chosen ones. Like Dr. Sivana, Billy is a boy abandoned and rejected by his family, convinced he can make it on his own — a deeply cynical perspective that’s challenged by the unwanted kindness of the last-ditch foster home to which he’s sent.
That perspective bleeds over to his time as Shazam, wearing his new superpowers with all the cocky bravado of a downtrodden kid suddenly handed a baseball bat. As he gets used to his new abilities, and the responsibilities that come with them, Billy has to grow enough to start thinking of others. It’s a simple, treacly message, but Sandberg treats this material with a warm and understanding hand.
While much of the screentime is dedicated to Levi, Angel, and Grazer (who has a lovely chemistry with both), It’s clear that Shazam!‘s lesson is that Billy will only ever get so far without people to care about him. Billy bonds most with Freddy, but some of the film’s loveliest and most bittersweet moments come from his interactions with his other foster siblings — the smart, driven Mary (Grace Fulton), who’s torn between leaving for college and staying where she’s wanted; sweet Darla (Faithe Herman) has the kind of sunny disposition that bounces nicely off the laconic Billy. Alongside foster brothers Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Eugene (Ian Chen), Shazam! makes room for earned moments of family warmth.
Downright Sinful: Of course, every yin has its yang, and Shazam! does its best to elevate Strong’s Dr. Sivana to a foe subtextually worthy of the film’s family-friendly messaging. A spurned acolyte of the original Shazam, Sivana’s rejection turns him into a cruel, outré villain, complete with a bald head, scarred eye, and more furred leather jackets than Fashion Week. Strong has long made a cottage industry playing glowering baddies in movies like this, and he easily slips into the role here.
Still, his moments are the film’s weakest, especially since his army of baddies (in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins) largely amount to grey CG globs with a slight theme behind them. He functions best as a dark mirror for Billy’s own cynicism — the kind of person the young man could become if he doesn’t have the right people around him. The Amblinesque climax, in which Shazam, his family, and Sivana have their final showdown, largely works despite Sivana.
The Verdict: That the film’s title ends with an exclamation point is perhaps the best indicator of Shazam!‘s intended tone. It’s a celebration of the glee that young kids feel when they open their first superhero comic, or play with their action figures, or tie an old T-shirt around their neck and zoom around the backyard. It’s certainly the most youth-friendly and playful blockbuster superhero flick to come along in some time, a saccharine but winsome lark that also works in some heartwarming messages about the need to accept love from other people. Also, Zachary Levi flosses in a superhero costume, so that’s fun too.
Where’s It Playing?: Shazam! crashes into theaters like a bolt of lightning on April 5th.