One could hardly imagine a more drastic alteration in the so-called DC Universe than the one represented by “Shazam!” Instead of the dark, gloomy world created by Zach Snyder, David F. Sandburg’s jovial superhero movie resembles the spirit of the animated “Teen Titans Go! To the Movies” way more than “Suicide Squad” and its similar cousins. It’s very much a live-action cartoon, in spirit and style.
As the picture itself admits with a brief stop at a toy shop, “Shazam!” is like a version of “Big” in which the kid isn’t only turned into an adult with an adolescent’s mindset, but a superhero besides. He’s fourteen-year old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an orphan who’s run away from countless foster families to search for his birth mother (Caroline Palmer), from whom he got separated at a carnival years earlier, when he was only four.
He’s now assigned to a Philadelphia group home run by likable, loving couple Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), who already host a bunch of kids who become Billy’s surrogate siblings: Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Darla (Faithe Herman), and—most importantly—Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a wise-ass disabled boy with a motor mouth and an obsessive knowledge of superheroes, which he teaches to his new roommate. He’s also the target of campus bullies Burke (Evan Marsh) and Brett (Carson McCormac).
After defending Freddy from them and taking refuge in a subway, Billy finds himself mystically transported to the underground temple of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who endows the flabbergasted kid with his powers—the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury, or in acronym form, Shazam. By uttering that name, Billy becomes the muscled, superpowered hero, dressed in a red suit with a white cape, who was originally called Captain Marvel when Fawcett Comics introduced him in 1939 and is here played by Zachary Levi. (The character was transferred to the DC brand after a lawsuit, and the name later ceded to Marvel. Thus the Captain Marvel now on screen in a separate movie.)
In a series of mostly amusing scenes Billy/Marvel (or, if you prefer, Shazam) learns the extent of his powers and turns into a showboat who actually does public performances for money. (One of the problems of Henry Gayden’s slapsticky script is that teen Billy is actually much more mature than the “adult” he turns into. The makers might have recalled that one of the attributes he’s given is the wisdom of Solomon. Of course, had he been too solemn he wouldn’t be so kid-friendly.)
Of course, a hero without a villain to confront would violate the universal law of balance (at least in the comic-book universe), and so we also get Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who as a youngster (Ethan Pugiotto) bullied by his father (John Glover) was deemed by the wizard as not “of pure heart” and therefore unworthy of the powers he could bestow. Obsessed with compensating for his loss, he finds his way back to Shazam’s temple and instead becomes the opposite of the hero—the vessel of the seven deadly vices, malevolent CGI critters with terrible destructive instincts.
Needless to say, hero and villain will do battle—indeed, they’ll engage in a series of battles, culminating in a big one at another carnival, where Billy/Shazam will not only finally marshal his full powers but realize that he needs the aid of his new family to succeed, having finally come to terms with the truth about his birth mother. A spoiler here: not only does Captain Marvel Jr. make an appearance, but some others as well—including a special cameo from another DC stalwart in a coda at the close.
One can to observe that these last-act fight scenes, while decently executed, and larded with some good gags—the best involving Sivana’s obligatory final speech—are as overstuffed as the heavily padded costume Levi wears. They drag the picture out unconscionably; with the final credits (spiced up with two added scenes, the first pointing toward a sequel and the last a dig at another DC superhero) it runs over 130 minutes. Younger kids may well get a bit fidgety before it’s over.
Still, “Shazam!” is good-natured fun that hews to a rather old-fashioned comic-book sensibility rather than trying to drag the character into the modern era of serious, oh-so-sensitive superheroes. Gayden provides plenty of jokes, Sandberg plays most everything with a light touch, and Levi has a field day as a big lug who relishes every bit of the absurdity. Strong and Hounsou play their parts without winking at the audience, as they might well have done, and the youngsters are an agreeable bunch. Angel is adept as the slightly sullen Batson—his amazed scene with Hounsou is especially well-done—but the real sparkplug is Grazer, who goes completely overboard with his mugging but remains endearing anyway. Though it might make you groan a bit, his double triumph at the end is well-deserved.
On the technical side, the picture is spic and span, as brightly colored as a pre-“Spider Verse” animated feature. Jennifer Spence’s production design embraces artificiality, and Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography is awash with vibrancy. Michel Aller’s editing might have been crisper, especially toward the end, but Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is winningly zippy.
Gomer Pyle, a big fan as you might recall, would probably shout “Golly!” over the result.