Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
A very silly combination of the 1988 movie Big and the broad strokes of the modern superhero mythos, Shazam! barely holds up to even the most basic narrative scrutiny, yet manages its jumbled plot elements well enough to emerge as an entertaining, if messy, concoction. Though its sentimental moments ring superficial and hollow, as long as it sticks to the otherwise jokey tone, it’s good fun. With an appealing star turn from Zachary Levi (Chuck on NBC’s Chuck) as the titular caped crusader, this latest entry in the frequently dreary DC cinematic universe proves that a wink and a nudge, as they did in Aquaman, go a long way towards audience enjoyment.
It’s nice, too, how focused the movie is on kids. Though rated PG-13– “for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material” – Shazam! holds very little to offend (other than its good-natured inanity), making it a nice alternative to other, more violent fare. Yes, there are fights, and people die, but the whole is buoyed by a constant comic tone that softens the edge. If not as campy as the 1960s Batman TV show, it comes awfully close.
Shazam began life as Captain Marvel in 1940, with what is now being used as his main appellation – “Shazam” – merely the word uttered by young Billy Batson to conjure up the powers of an ancient wizard and become a musclebound titan. Since we now have a rival Captain Marvel in the Marvelverse, the folks at DC never once mention that original incarnation, though the basic outlines of the character remain the same. When 14-year-old Batson speaks the magic name, he transforms into the adult Levi, his new pumped-up physique nicely filling out a spandex red suit. Though strong, fast and bullet-proof, he is still just a boy, inside.
Batson is played by Asher Angel (Jonah Beck on the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack) with just the right amount of smirk and disaffection to be mildly annoying but not completely off-putting. After one too many escapes from foster homes – usually because he’s still looking for the birth mother who lost him in an amusement park (a scene we visit in flashback) – he ends up in a group living situation that seems better than most. His new roommate/foster brother is superhero aficionado Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, It), whose character is given a cane to let us know he’s disabled (though there’s not much else to sell that idea). Once Billy comes upon his powers, Freddy makes the perfect sidekick, since he knows the basic rules of the genre.
Those powers are first hinted at in an opening scene where a different kid, back in the 1970s, who will quickly grow into present-day Mark Strong (Miss Sloane), is suddenly transported from a car trip with dad and older brother to a cave lair where the then-current Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, who was also in Captain Marvel, interestingly) tests potential new wizards, one by one, hoping to find a replacement for himself before he dies. That young boy fails to qualify, launching a lifetime of bitterness that makes him the eventual villain once Batson, over 40 years later, becomes the new Shazam.
That’s the basic framework. What follows zigs and zags between genuinely smart and funny set pieces and cloying mawkishness. I loved almost all the gags centered on Levi’s goofiness as he adroitly follows the instructions of the 14-year-old brain within him. There’s even a brief tribute to Big where he slides across a giant keyboard on a toy-store floor. Ha! Not original, but cute. And so goes the movie. The parts where Levi struggles to understand exactly what Shazam can do are also a hoot. With nice supporting work from the rest of the cast, the movie churns along pleasantly, never amazing, but more than watchable.