There’s nothing subtle about Shazam, a hulking hero in red tights with a glowing lightning bolt on his chest who must shout his own name in order to transform into his super-powered persona. “Shazam!” the film is equally unsubtle; it’s a big, upbeat superhero romp that brings some much needed buoyancy and humor to the DC Extended Universe of comic book movies.
With its young cast of characters and playful tone, the film is decidedly for kids, and that’s great. As much as I’ve enjoyed the direction the superhero genre has taken over the last decade with all the dense continuities, expansive shared universes and, at times, heavy themes, studios seem to have lost sight that kids watch these movies, too.
“Shazam!” corrects that, giving us the experience of being a superhero from a kid’s perspective. For those who don’t know the Shazam story, here’s a quick primer: Billy Batson is a young boy chosen by a wizard to be his champion for good on Earth. When Billy utters the name of the wizard — “Shazam!” — he transforms into an adult hero. It’s a goofy conceit, and the film knows it. But while that self-awareness results in a few knowing jokes — the sly reference to “Big” was well placed — here and there, the film is never embarrassed by its mythology; it simply dives in and takes you along for the ride.
Also along for the ride is Zachary Levi as the titular Shazam. Levi is an affable, charming actor with a good sense of comedy. He’s a great fit for an adult superhero possessed by the soul of a kid, even if the bulging muscles under his suit look about as convincing as George Michael’s in “Arrested Development.”
Asher Angel plays Billy, a troubled and restless orphan who, in the beginning of the film, lands in yet another foster home after his latest attempt to run away. Billy is your typical brooding teen, but he makes a true friend in fellow foster kid Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a quippy teen with a major superhero obsession. (Remember, this is a universe where Batman and Superman are real.)
When Freddy discovers Billy’s Shazam secret, he is more than ready to help him train, as well as goof off in a series of viral YouTube videos. But when a supervillain with a magical connection to Shazam named Sivana (Mark Strong) shows up, Billy is forced to get serious to save his foster family and maybe the world.
The supervillain stuff is your standard generic fare. Spurned by Shazam as a child, Sivana has spent his life working to harness the dark forces the wizard and his ilk have kept at bay. Those forces are the Seven Deadly Sins, which manifest in the film as grotesque monsters that use Sivana as a vessel to unleash their darkness upon the world.
But for all the massive superpowers being wielded in this film, the stakes remain relatively low. Part of that might be the filmmaker’s desire to keep Billy/Shazam’s training wheels on in the first film in what’s certain to be a franchise. However, for all the bombast and lightning and property damage, the third-act showdown never extends much beyond the boundaries of a winter carnival in suburban Philadelphia.
In “Shazam,” director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) has created a fun, high-flying film that delivers both big-time superhero action and a lot of heart. This is ultimately a story about young Billy’s search for family and his inevitable understanding that he is stronger when he lets others into his life. It’s a valuable lesson at the heart of a strong superhero film that will please superhero fans young and old alike.