Superhero films come in all shapes and sizes. In the recent renaissance of the do-gooder movie we’ve seen comedies, political thrillers, period pieces and all-out action films. Iron Man quips, Batman broods and Doctor Strange is simply surreal. “Shazam!,” the new Warner Bros. adaptation of a DC comic, adds new textures to the genre’s palette, sincere zaniness.
At just fourteen-years-old Billy (Asher Angel) has already been through the wringer. Passed from foster home to foster home he finally lands with Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), a loving couple who open their house and heart to Billy, motor mouth Freddy (Dylan Grazer), cutie Darla (Faithe Herman), timid Pedro (Jovan Armand) and brainiac Eugene (Ian Chen). “They seem nice,” jokes Freddy, “but trust me it’s real Game of Thrones around here.”
Billy’s life takes a metaphysical twist when ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), protector of the realms from the Seven Deadly Sins and keeper of the Rock of Eternity, plucks him from obscurity to be the champion of the world. “Say my name so my powers may flow through you,” he instructs Billy. The wizard needs an heir to do battle against a malevolent army lead by Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a vengeful baddie once rejected by the ancient wizard because his heart was not pure enough, who threaten to “spread poison on everything they touch.”
It’s a big job that comes without much of a roadmap. Billy knows that when he says the word “Shazam!” he morphs into a grown man (Zachary Levi) complete with a red suit and extraordinary powers. “I applaud your choices today,” says a stranger on the subway. “Those shoes. That belt. And that cape. It shouldn’t work but it does.”
Trouble is, he doesn’t know how to harness his newfound abilities. “Superpowers? Dude, I don’t even know how to pee in this thing!” That’s where Freddy, a fan of the real-life superheroes who help keep his home city of Philadelphia safe, comes in handy. Together they navigate Billy’s life as a superhero in exactly the way most teenager boys would—in a series of ever escalating stunts à la “Jackass.”
Will that be enough to prepare the youngster do battle with Sivana and his band of Deadly Sins come-to-life bound-and-determined on destroying the planet?
“Shazam!” is a big-time superhero movie that feels more like an indie flick. The names of digital artists and special effects crews outnumber the cast by about 10,000 to 1 but the film still feels surprisingly intimate given the genre. Themes of the importance of community, of finding your logical, if not biological, family, help make this feel personal, more down to earth than some of the other recent high-flying caped do-gooder movies. Like many other superhero movies it’s a bit too in love with its CGI in the climatic action scenes but director David F. Sandberg remembers to include some humour and some heart into the carnage.
The appealing cast—including memorable turns from Angel and Herman as the sweeter-than-sweet Darla—is headed by Levy. As the grown-up superhero with the attitude of a teenager he retains the glee and awe of a young boy discovering his powers. It’s a classic comic book situation come to life and Levy pulls it off with charm.
“Shazam!” forgoes the dark tone of some of the other DC movies, opting for a kid-friendly feel. It’s more akin to the Christopher Reeves Superman movies than “Man of Steel,” filled with fun, humour and moral focus.