A 14-year-old becomes a superhero overnight by just shouting one word, “Shazam!”
Superheroes are such a big deal in pop culture these days, it’s easy to forget that these larger-than-life figures who sock bullies in the face and (mostly) walk a righteous path also have an innate appeal for children.
The latest DC Comics film “Shazam!” (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide April 5) leans into that wish-fulfillment fantasy with super-duper strength. And while genre tropes are very much in play, there’s a certain magic in this “Big”-meets-Superman affair where an ancient wizard transforms a troubled teenager into a buff, god-like guy with a light-up suit.
Director David F. Sandberg’s heroic tale takes place in a world where Superman and Batman save the day on a regular basis, though they can’t help 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) with his issues. After losing his single mother in a carnival crowd when he was very young and bouncing around the foster system, Billy is a nomadic soul searching for a real home – as well as the truth about what happened to his mom – when he’s taken in by Philadelphia couple Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans).
Their place is already packed with five other kids of various ages and colors, and Billy initially remains aloof. Beneath a tough exterior and sometimes delinquent personality, he does have a good heart, though, saving hisnew foster brother (who has disabilities) – and big-time Man of Steel fanboy – Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) from a school beatdown. That puts him on the radar of dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who’s desperately searching for a champion to wield seriously extraordinary abilities protect the Earth from supernatural evil.Billy says the magical guy’s name and one lightning strike later, he’s an adult muscle man (Zachary Levi) who looks like he just stepped off the pages of a 1940s comic.
While many of the DC movies thus far have tended toward the darker side, “Shazam!” arrives as almost a lighthearted alternative, with shades of nostalgia, thanks to “Ghostbusters”-style monsters and Christmastime shenanigans a la “Gremlins.” It’s also probably the closest yet to one of rival Marvel’s projects, with a clever narrative that dazzles when supersized Billy and Freddy partner up to figure out all of his Shazam-y abilities and become YouTube sensations. (There’s of course a whole lesson on “with great power comes great responsibility.” Thanks, Spider-Man.) Every good guy needs a supervillain, however, and Shazam gets his in Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), an antagonist with an interesting backstory, who’s given his prodigious talents by the Seven Deadly Sins.
But, really, the high-flying showdowns and the holiday-themed action-packed finale (which is highly satisfying, though it goes on a bit too long) are secondary. “Shazam!” works because of its emphasis on friendship and family: Mrs. Vasquez has a bumper sticker that reads “I’m a foster mom: What’s your superpower?” that sums up the film’s overall warm-hug vibe.
Levi is essential to that because, for a guy not named Chris, he makes a pitch-perfect do-gooder. There’s a youthful wonder and innocence he captures as the Frito-chomping man-child hero, and he has all of the facial expressions and flossing skills (the dancing kind rather than the dental) to convey the pure excitement of a boy learning he can pretty much do anything.
Supes and Bats will never die, but in Shazam, a character who’s been around for seven decades and is only now breaking through into the mainstream, youngsters have a new family-friendly hero to call their own.
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