“Shazam!” - about a teenager who transforms into a superhero - is equal parts “Big” and “Goonies” wrapped in a whole lot of fun. It’s truly a riot, which is a shocker considering the movie is from the DC Extended Universe, the outfit behind superhero duds “Suicide Squad,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Man of Steel,” “Aquaman,” etc. For once, the brooding and stiff acting - DC’s kryptonite - are placed on leave.
For this is the tale of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old orphan who joyously discovers that simply saying “Shazam!” immediately transforms his lilt body into a hulking superhero in the form of Zachary Levi. In a snap, Billy converts a giant chip on his shoulders into a spandex-clad caped crusader blessed with super strength, hyper speed, flight and the ability to shoot lightning bolts from his fingers. Levi plays him like the overgrown kid his character is. Like Tom Hanks in “Big,” Levy convincingly projects childlike energy and awe that imbues the movie with irresistible charm. In one sequence, there’s even a nod to Penny Marshall’s classic, with Levi deftly using his feet to bounce across the keyboard of a floor piano, pounding out a melodic tune in a toy store. Sound familiar?
Going by the aliases The Red Cyclone and Captain Sparkle Fingers, among others, Billy’s true identity is his friendship with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a physically impaired, fast-talking foster kid with a comic-book obsession and an even more serious problem with school bullies. They are “brothers” in the home they share with their foster parents, Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews), and four other orphans (Mary Bromfield, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen and Jovan Armand). But it’s Grazer’s Freddy who flat steals the movie with his charm and sincerity.
His scenes opposite Levi are a riot, especially the various Superpower Test challenges they create. The boys also use Billy’s newfound zapping abilities to grab a wad of cash from an ATM and empty the contents of a Dr. Pepper machine. Levi is fish-out-of-water funny getting to know his muscles, taking selfies with fans, and figuring out what he can get away with, like skipping school or accidentally ducking into a gentlemen’s club. Together, Grazer (“It”) and Levi (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) are comedy gold, especially in a scene when they visit a real estate agent while in search of a proper lair.
Sometimes the movie strains credulity and defies the laws of physics, but a supporting cast of young actors who look and act like real kids helps elevate the material. Director David F. Sandberg (“Annabelle: Creation”), working from a script by Henry Gayden (“Earth to Echo”), turns tropes upside down to deliver a message of self-empowerment and what it means to have a family.
The movie stumbles a bit with its set up and exposition. In the prologue, we meet an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) holed up in an alternate cave world. He’s seeking a True Champion who is of “pure heart” and “strong spirit” to protect the realms from the seven deadly sins. He’s been unable to find one, until decades later when Billy unwittingly shows he is different by defending Freddie against a pair of schoolyard bullies. Hounsou spews a lot of dialogue about sins, realms, wrath, and duty. Stone sculptures suddenly come to life as hideous creatures. But when the wizard commands Billy to “put your hands on my staff,” Billy counters with “Gross!,” a reply that is typical of the movie’s humor.
To be successful, superhero movies need a good villain, and while Strong’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, is no Thanos from the “Avengers,” he’s still formidable and bent on destroying the world. The British actor, with his deep, velvety voice, is no stranger to being the baddie (“Kick-Ass,” “Stardust,” “Green Lantern” and Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes”), and he and Levi take to the sky for a climatic battle at a winter carnival, where our hero has to quickly master his power. That’s the easy part, it’s this “adulting” thing that’s the challenge. Join the club.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews.
(PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material.)