The charmingly silly Shazam! tells the story of a foster kid who can transform into an adult superhero. This gleeful film is less concerned with apocalyptic battles than the comedic possibilities inherent in its premise, says Travis Johnson.
Superhero stories are inherently juvenile and if you want to get upset about that observation it’s worth reflecting that the most iconic characters in the genre include a guy who dresses up as a bat and a nerd who can climb walls. They are children’s stories at base, no matter how many fans want to cite books by Alan Moore or Frank Miller as seminal texts.
Now here comes Shazam!, which gets around that issue not by deconstructing it or denying it, ala Zack Snyder’s unfortunate forays into the form, but by embracing it. Based on the venerable DC Comics character of the same name (who was formerly and confusingly known as Captain Marvel, and that’s a deep rabbit hole), Shazam! is a gleeful and big-hearted caped caper that forefronts the childish power fantasy at the heart of the superhero archetype by putting the powers of the gods in the hands of a young boy.
That boy is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 12-year-old foster kid tapped by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to wield the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the lightning of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury (it’s an acronym, see?), thus transforming into the adult superhero also called Shazam (Zachary Levi).
Pulling villain duties is Mark Strong as Dr. Sivana, who was once rejected by the wizard and now wants to steal Shazam’s powers for himself. In the meantime, he is possessed by the seven deadly sins, which manifest as gnarly CGI demons to give our hero something to punch later down the narrative track.
But not yet – charmingly, Shazam! is less concerned with apocalyptic battles than the comedic possibilities inherent in its premise, which is essentially Penny Marshall’s Big –but with a superhero. So, with his disabled foster brother, superhero nerd Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer from It), Billy/Shazam spends a good chunk of the film not just figuring out what his powers are (Bullet immunity! Flight! Electrical manipulation!) but taking full advantage of Billy suddenly being in an adult body, by buying beer and visiting a strip club.
Childish? You bet. But it’s also uproariously funny, thanks to winning turns from Levi as the gormless but powerful lead and Grazer as his snarky but enthusiastic sidekick. Still, there are lessons to be learned along the way: predictably, Billy lets his newfound abilities go to his head and must learn how to be a hero in time for the requisite final act smackdown.
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He also needs to learn how to be a part of his newfound foster family, including foster parents Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), and assorted foster siblings Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Darla (Faithe Herman). Family is beyond the shadow of a doubt the dominant theme at work in Shazam!; Billy’s psychic wound is being abandoned by his mother as a tyke, while the villainous Sivana is scarred by his own father’s disappointment in him (a fun cameo from John Glover, who played dad to another bald supervillain in TV’s Smallville). The film is even set in Philadelphia which is, lest we forget, the City of Brotherly Love.
These notions about family of choice and generational trauma aren’t just sprinkled on top of the narrative as an afterthought. They’re woven into the fabric of the film, but never so much that they overwhelm the bright, brazen and colourful action. This is still a kid’s power fantasy – it’s just one that has more going on under the hood than the usual. So, come for the laughs and the superpowered punch-ups; stay for the rather touching insights on friendship, love, belonging, and leave the intergalactic sturn und drang to the other crew. Shazam! is a winner.