What does every kid dream of? Money? Fame? An entire weekend of Fortnite without parents telling them to go outside and “get some fresh air”? I’m guessing pretty high on the list is “becoming a superhero.” What kid wouldn’t want to acquire superpowers, which would allow them to leap tall buildings in a single bound or become invisible? The only problem with this scenario is that kids make terrible superheroes. They’d end up using their newfound abilities to vanish when it was time to do their homework or find a way to develop super flatulence that would wipe out towns like a sulfur hurricane.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is an angst-ridden teenager who has never gotten over being abandoned by his mother. His formative years have been spent bouncing from one foster home to the next as he attempts to find his mom. After a run-in with the law, Billy is placed in a group home featuring the most lovable collection of misfit children ever assembled. The kind of super-cute kids that could only exist in the magical world of movies. Among them is Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a foul-mouthed, superhero-obsessed Tiny Tim complete with a limp and cane.
After a schoolyard scuffle, Bllly ends up being chosen by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be his super-powered champion and save the world from a collection of demons known as “The Seven Deadly Sins.” When he says the magic word, he’s transformed from a regular teenager into an adult superhero with amazing powers. Think of the movie “Big,” but instead of becoming Tom Hanks, the kid becomes Superman.
Mentally and emotionally, he’s still a teenager, which leads to a number of awkward moments. He shares his secret with Freddie, and the two begin to navigate Billy’s newfound powers and navigate the world of being a superhero. Unfortunately, the ancient evil has their own champion, an insane piece of mustache-twirling evil known as Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong). Can Billy find out how to be a hero before Doctor Sivana unleashes an evil plague onto the fair citizens of Philadelphia?
“Shazam!” is an interesting cinematic experience for what it brings to the all-too-familiar superhero movie: comedy and heart. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a comic-book movie not obsessed with being “hip” or “grounded.” Director David Sandberg makes being a superhero look like fun, not some burden that has to be endured. There’s also a lot of time spent developing characters beyond the traditional superhero tropes. Time is spent making Billy Batson into a three-dimensional character.
The movie is also genuinely funny, with lots of opportunities to find the humor in a teenage mind in the body of an adult superhero, as well as playing gleefully with many of tropes traditionally found in the average comic book movie. “Shazam!” is unique at a time where superhero movies are fairly common, both in their frequency and quantity. The movie has a sense of purpose and creativity that hearkens back to a simpler time when superheroes weren’t brooding or serving as allegories for religion or a mirror to the depressing-ass elements of the real world.
My only major gripe revolves around the big, bad Doctor Sivana. While there is some effort made to develop the villain, the performance by Mark Strong is monotone and lifeless. He might be the most boring mustache-twirling rogue ever committed to film. While the movie creates an incredibly likable and deep protagonist, the villain is straight out of the world-conquering handbook of cinema cliches. There have been over 50 comic-book movies released in the 21st century, and there are probably only five memorable, engaging villains. To quote Heath Ledger’s Joker, “this town deserves a better class of criminal.” There’s also some stylistic and creative choices heavily borrowed from 2017’s Marvel hit “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
“Shazam!” is an engaging and entertaining blockbuster that will be loved by kids and liked by adults comfortable with some of the cornier elements of the story. I found myself charmed by Zachary Levi’s performance and some earnest third-act twists that deliver a fulfilling finale to this foster-kid fairy tale.