Freewheeling and fun, Shazam! is a game-changer for the DC franchise. It sidesteps the bog of self-seriousness that trapped most of their cinematic universe in a life-threatening rut. The jokes land where they should, the characters make sense, and the story feels faithful to its age-old origin. Anybody who works up the bravery to tackle the subject of Batman and Superman should take notes: This is how you make a superhero movie.
Based on the pre-WWII comic book character, Shazam centers on Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a sullen foster boy who searches endlessly for his birth mother. Billy’s wanderlust alienates him from a string of foster families until he’s paired with a gentle couple (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and their lovable, ragtag cadre of kids. One boy, a disabled, abundantly friendly geek named Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), latches onto Billy in short order. A random subway trip ports Billy to a faraway temple, where an ominous, growling wizard (Djimon Hounsou) proclaims that the boy has been chosen to inherit an array of superpowers and battle the imminent forces of evil. Soon, Billy finds that the word “Shazam” transforms him into a burly, adult superhero (Zachary Levi). As he grapples with this great power, a supervillain (Mark Strong) arrives to challenge him.
Shazam! may seem busy with plot, and it clocks in at well over two hours, but it also takes the time to get a lot of things right: Billy never seems like the typical, vacuously bratty movie kid, instead he acts out in a way that makes sense for his character, and displays real remorse when he hurts those who love him. It’s extra shading and depth you don’t see very often in films like this. Also, you gotta know going in that Shazam! will have a montage where Billy awkwardly learns to harness his new powers. Even thought it’s a given, I’ll be damned if these scenes aren’t pretty funny. Not since Richard Donner’s original Superman has a movie done such a great job conveying the giddy innocence of a boy learning to fly.
This movie’s uncommon quality is further boosted by sturdy performances. Angel is a standout as Billy, a boy with an erratic blend of fragile petulance and genuine empathy. As Billy’s alter ego, Levi does a great job bringing the anxiety-laden joy of being a sudden superhero. Grazer fits into his sidekick role with so much ease that it’s impossible not to root for his character. Andrews and Milans are terrific as foster parents who provide a sea of tranquility for tempestuous children. I can’t figure out if Strong’s villainous performance is going for Diet Stanley Tucci or Diet Alan Arkin, but either way, it works for the role. My only acting quibble is with Hounsou. He’s reliable, as always, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the last few movies. With Captain Marvel, the righteous pile of monkey doo that was Serenity, and now this movie, it seems Hounsou is being cast only to ferociously growl his lines and offer crazed glares at people. Hounsou has been nominated for Oscars, y’all. Let’s get him a little more variety.
As a young man, I heard an axiom that’s stayed with me: “Always leave people wanting more of you instead of less of you.” I wish filmmakers would live by these rules: Man of Steel, Batman V. Superman, Justice League, and Suicide Squad…that’s more than enough of the murky, miserable DC movies. Shazam! delivers a boisterous warmth that hearkens back to the essence of what made comic books so endearing in the first place. I walked out of the theater ready for more. Bring on the sequels.