What if a teenager acquired superpowers in a world as hero-obsessed as our own? It’s a scenario that’s surprisingly remained unexplored despite cinema’s annual glut of comic book movies, and one the DCEU’s latest installment, “Shazam!”, successfully milks for all it’s worth.
We’re introduced to Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan, in the midst of scheming to use a police car blotter to search for his mother, whom he lost in the crowd at a carnival years earlier. This latest in a series of runaway attempts lands him in a new foster group home in Philadelphia, where he resists his multicultural adoptive family’s every attempt to accept him into their fold.
His new bunkmate, the hero-obsessed and motormouthed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), correctly hints at Billy’s desire to be invisible, running from any human connection on the assumption of finding his mother. Despite his removed attitude, Billy can’t help standing up to the handicapped Freddie’s school bullies when they mention his parentless-ness. While evading them, he’s transported to the dark lair of an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who entrusts Billy with his magical powers, just as soon as he says his name: Shazam.
“Seriously?” Billy scoffs, in an early example of the comic levity “Shazam!” brings to the superhero table. With a bolt of lightning, Billy is transformed to “his fullest potential,” a white-caped adult superhero tasked with protecting Earth from the seven deadly sins. Little does he know, one of the wizard’s formerly rejected hero candidates, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), has already harnessed those sins, represented here as gargoyle-like smoke monsters he commands from a glowing eyeball.
It’s all very comic book-y and unsubtle, in other words, but rather than try to cloak its mythic silliness in self-serious darkness, “Shazam!” leans into it. The villain-hero plot may be relatively simple, but the movie endears itself to audiences in the lackadaisical time it takes getting there. There’s a lot of fun and games early on featuring Billy and Freddie figuring out the extent of his powers, reflective of how hyperaware modern teens might actually react to the development — brainstorming cooler hero names, racking up the YouTube views, “flossing” in costume, using his newfound stature to buy beer, charging strangers’ phones with electric zaps, or hollering “Hadouken!” when shooting lightning.
The characters’ semi-authentic reactions also allow for a lot of memorable and hilarious subversions of the standard comic book tropes, like heroes getting credit for solving problems they themselves created or villains reciting evil monologues from absurd distances. This post-modern approach makes “Shazam!” easily one of the funniest of its genre to date, far fresher than Marvel’s standard quip-happy humor style.
The film also does an uncommonly good job at establishing a few basic rules for these powers that pay off during fight sequences, helping them feel a little less like weightless action figure-mashing than most superhero climaxes these days. Though never approaching the spectacle of “Aquaman,” this specificity gives the set pieces a little more identity than your average sky-beam climax, giving the audience more reason to invest even when the fight’s outcomes feel preordained.
The other factor stopping “Shazam!” from entering parody territory is the strong characterization, thanks to a solid script by Henry Gayden and impeccable casting. Billy’s abandonment issues and avoidance play out efficiently but believably, while every member of his foster family has some measure of authentic pathos and a time to shine. So what if their reactions to the death-defying heroics seem muted in keeping with the film’s lighthearted tone — what counts is that their affection for each other feels real, and the child actors themselves are a joy to watch.
Most of Billy’s liveliest moments go to Zachary Levi, playing up the incongruity of an overzealous teen trapped in a caped crusader’s pumped bod. The concept itself is such an obvious distillation of the superhero genre’s dimension of goofy childhood wish fulfillment, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done in film before (at least, to my knowledge).
“Shazam!” is the kind of family-friendly comfort entertainment the comic book genre has gotten too far away from, imparting positive values without taking itself too seriously. It’s a reminder what fun superhero movies can be when they take a fresh approach and stop trying to be something they’re not.