Wondering about the charm that went A.W.O.L. in Dumbo? Looks like it found its way to Shazam! — that rare comic-book epic that actually deserves the exclamation point in its title for not making audiences feel bad about feeling good. Don’t look here for the artful cool of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise or the usual DC Extended Universe (DCEU) angsty agenda a la Suicide Squad and Justice League; this breezy, funny entry keeps things light with a hilarious and heartfelt package of nonstop kid-friendly kick-ass.
Plus, there no resisting the rollicking, rock-the-house energy of Zachary Levi, who plays the superhero like an overgrown kid in a comic-book store — which, er, he is. Think Tom Hanks in Big, as director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) and screenwriter Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) give us the origin story of Billy Batson, scrappily played by Asher Angel of the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack.
Billy is 14 and a constant runaway from the Philadelphia foster homes he’s been forced to endure since his teen mom deserted him. He’s ready to bolt from his new guardians Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and their kids: Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), and Darla (a fabulous Faithe Herman). What keeps Billy in place is an instant kinship with his roommate Freddy (the scene-stealing Jack Dylan Grazer), a kid on crutches with a smart mouth. The duo are both obsessed with comic-book heroes, but it’s Billy who gets suddenly beamed into the cave of a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who handpicks Billy as both his successor and a superheroic savior. “Put your hands on my staff,” demands the ancient soothsayer. “Gross!” says Billy, in a response that typifies this movie’s Deadpool-lite irreverence.
The fun really kicks in when Billy says the magic word “Shazam!”: an acronym of the immortals Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. Suddenly, he’s a muscled do-gooder in spandex played by Levi, 38, with enough dazzling derring-do to set the movie spinning into the screwball stratosphere. Best known for starring in Chuck and as the neurotic, noncomformist Jewish doctor on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the actor owns the role. He’s a firecracker. And his teamwork with Grazer is comic gold, as they awkwardly and uproariously work out what powers the kid now possesses. Yes, he can fly, hurl lightning bolts and make bullets bounce off him! And when they visit a real-estate agent to find the new hero in town a proper lair, the film hits a peak of inspired lunacy.
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Shazam’s skills come in handy when the excellent Mark Strong enters the story as the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a former misfit kid himself and cursed with daddy issues that didn’t end with puberty. The film pulls out all the FX stops when the two magic men go at each other during a climactic carnival. But that stuff is just noise compared to the relationship between Billy and Freddy, and what goes on in a boy’s mind when he suddenly finds he can turn him into a grown man that can save the day. Back in 1939 when artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker created the character (once known as Captain Marvel; confusing, right?), the big guy rivaled Superman in popularity. After that, Shazam lost his luster. Seeing Levi revive the character’s manchild innocence with a bracing modern touch is the magic that makes the movie.