Film Review: ‘Shazam!’ Has the Heart of a True Hero

Finally! The DC Extended Universe has been largely a mess since Warner Bros. rushed to copy the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whereas the MCU had built up slowly, over multiple movies, towards “The Avengers,” the DCEU tried to turbocharge the process. This led to poor use of their A-list characters and a disastrous take on “Justice League.” Now, in the midst of a course correction, they’ve cracked the code with “Shazam!” and crafted an utter delight. Much like with “Wonder Woman,” this is more concerned with being supreme entertainment, as opposed to world building. That choice pays major dividends.

“Shazam!” plays like a cross between “Big” and “Kick-Ass,” though in some ways that’s reductive. The film is giving a different kind of spin to the superhero origin story. If the beats are familiar, the fun, the heart, and the soul, not to mention the humor, are all new. Quality-wise, it’s right up there with “Captain Marvel,” the character that originally shared this one’s name. Both are doing completely different things with completely different material, but they’re equally successful. It’s a good time for comic book movie fans, truly.

For a brief moment, it seems like the DCEU is up to its old tricks. The opening sequence introduces us to The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) and his quest to find a champion to bestow his powers upon. He summons young Thad (Ethan Pugiotto), but the boy is not pure of heart, as he’s easily tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins, seen here as literal monsters. The Wizard shoos him off, though tragedy befalls Thad, setting him up for vengeance.

Luckily, everything from there on is largely gold. We meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan who constantly runs away from his foster families. Separated from his mother as a kid, he’s constantly looking to reconnect with her. Sent to a group home after his latest escapade, he finds a loving family unit, led by Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans). The other foster kids are nice, but only Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) really makes an effort to befriend Billy. The former is a huge superhero fan, something the latter will soon need to make use of.

Now grown, Thad is now known as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) and is hell-bent on getting the powers he deems rightfully his. He’s able to cross over and bond with the Sins, gaining evil abilities. Needing a champion ASAP, Billy is summoned by The Wizard and give the powers of Shazam. Taking the form of a hero (Zachary Levi), Billy is a kid in an invincible man’s body. Moreover, he’s completely overwhelmed by the transformation.

Billy initially just has fun with it, bonding with Freddy in the process, while also making a few bucks. Additionally, it’s a great way to help Freddy with some bullies. However, as Sivana finds out about his existence, he seeks to steal the powers of Shazam, in order to become unstoppable. Targeting his new family, Billy is forced to put aside childishness and become the champion The Wizard saw him to be. Billy will truly become Shazam.

The combination of Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Zachary Levi give “Shazam!” its heart and soul. Watching superhero action is fun, but Angel’s scenes are full of actual emotion. The payoff of Billy’s search for his birth mother is truly moving. Then, there are Angel and Grazer’s bonding moments, which are only upstaged by the ones between Grazer and Levi. As they figure out Shazam’s powers, it’s absolutely hilarious. In both forms, Grazer steals scenes with his fast-talking character.

Levi is perfect as Shazam. His size, smile, and innocence wonderfully capture the hero. Angel and Levi have very different mannerisms, but you buy how the transformation would bring out the wonder in the latter.  As for the other characters, there isn’t much to say. Mark Strong is your garden variety villain, playing a role he’s played many times before. Djimon Hounsou is under-utilized, and the other siblings in Billy’s family are mostly played for one note laughs. Look out for supporting turns, or more aptly cameos, from Adam Brody, D.J. Cotrona, Megan Good, and others. You’ll understand when you see them.

Director David F. Sandberg was not an obvious choice to make this film. Solid as his horror effort “Lights Out” was, nothing there suggested this. His light handling of the material is all about fun and heart, as opposed to garish action. And yet, he’s completely up to the task. Sandberg takes a largely comedic script by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, one that easily could have been toned down, and leans into it. Even the action is tinged with silliness. That’s truly why this soars. It’s a superhero outing that doubles down on being ridiculous.

“Shazam!” is an incredibly fun movie. If it had just been an outright spoof of comic book cinema, it would have worked. However, in really being as much an emotional tale of family, it sets itself apart. There’s magic within “Shazam!,” but it’s also pure magic as well. When it comes to the amount of smiling you’ll do, few things in 2019 so far can compare.

“Shazam!” is distributed by Warner Bros. and opens in theaters this Friday.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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