The premise of Shazam! seems primed for contemporary audiences. It’s the story of a young boy trapped in the body of an adult, a feeling that comic book movie viewers long away from high school should easily relate to.
It’s an old trope, and allusions to Big are made explicit with a floor piano, but that takes nothing away from the effectiveness of the film to bring character and narrative beyond the usual spectacle and bombast.
The opening act is refreshingly paced. The movie takes its time to integrate us into the storyline. We meet a young orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who’s on a quest to find the mother he got separated from at a theme park as a young child. A scruffy outsider, Billy has a chip on his shoulder as he bounces from foster home to foster home.
In his newest placement, he meets up with a ragtag bunch including young Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a kid with a cane who’s obsessed with properties conveniently all from the DC universe. When Billy is called to meet a wizard (Djimon Hounsou), he’s granted the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, along with a very silly red suit and awkwardly attached white cape. He also turns into a gawky adult (Zachary Levi).
Swedish director David Sandberg made his bones on documentary and horror films, and here manages to bring a sense of authenticity to the film that’s often lacking. The best parts by far are the character interactions, where we’re drawn into the dynamic of friends testing out their powers to varying effects and sometimes spectacular failure. There’s surely no better metaphor for adolescence. Writer Henry Gayden keeps the plot from being glaringly clichéd while still managing to check off the requisite superhero elements.
The baddie, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), is also given a relatively rich backstory that provides a little bit more weight to his need for vengeance. While it’s not quite as blissfully heavy-handed as the Fast & Furious franchise, themes of family and responsibility are central to the storyline, and their integration into the greater superheroics is surprisingly done with a degree of elegance.
Angel and Levi’s take on Billy is the heart of the film, and the two craft a terrific synergy. Levi’s having a blast being goofy without going over the edge, managing to provide the right degree of awkwardness without becoming cartoonish. Even toilet humor is nicely integrated, answering age old questions about how one relieves oneself while in a spandex unitard.
The retinue of foster kids and their caring parents easily could have come across as cloying, but thanks to strong performances and brisk scenes, it all works out. The most refreshing part of the movie may be the most throwback part – yes, the film takes place in a universe where Batman and Superman exist, but for at least this iteration, there’s no particular sense that we’re merely world-building. It feels like you could take a ride with just this one storyline without worrying about how it affects the machinations of a greater cinematic universe. You can simply hang out with Billy and his buds and take the movie in on its own terms.
Rid of the more strategic elements of needing to set up an entire franchise, Shazam! doesn’t forget to entertain first before getting ahead of itself. Its playfulness is welcome – look to a young kid smashing action figures together to get a sense of the final battle – but above all it’s a coming-of-age tale told at mythic scale. What easily could have been just more schlock instead feels like it has something to say. Its scope doesn’t need thousands of CGI creatures all attacking like some malevolent confetti. Instead, the movie draws real, human conflicts that still have a sense of supernatural urgency.
In the end, Shazam! works perfectly well for those who couldn’t care less about the baggage of decades of comic book lore, and reminds us that these superhero movies can be a hell of a lot of fun without sacrificing richness of character.