Courtesy of Warner Bros.
If you’ve ever seen a body swap comedy or the Tom Hanks classic ‘Big,’ you might have a soft spot for DC’s latest: “Shazam!” - a superhero film that’s dedicated to a teenager figuring out he can transform into a spandex wearing hero with electric powers when he says the magic word: “Shazam!”
Seldomly taking place within the framework of DC’s muddled cinematic universe, “Shazam!” is the studio's latest attempt to win over audiences with its breezy tone and comical one-liners (“Aquaman” tried and failed), it’s a step in the right direction, especially when you consider how dark and mundane “Man of Steel” and “Batman Vs Superman” were.
Under the helm of director David F Sandberg (who gave us both the terrific “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation”) - “Shazam!” is one of the more obscure characters in the DC canon, and Sandberg taps into his inner childhood to create a memorable impression of this bubble gum chewing 15 year-old-turned-hero. For brief moments throughout this two and half hour ride, DC seems to have cracked the formula it’s competitor, Marvel, has perfected over the years: if you can find the humor, run with it (and always employ Zachary Levi).
What doesn’t work for “Shazam!” is the routine superhero mumbo-jumbo origin that, by contract, must take place within the first thirty minutes. Then again, “Shazam!” isn’t trying to rewrite the status quo, but Henry Graydon's screenplay can’t help by riddle the film with the usual superhero troupes. The hero, Billy Batson, is a wisecracking street hustler, played with charm and brash by Asher Angel, who was abandoned by his teenage mother and has been through six different foster homes over the last three years. He’s not a bad kid, just full of resentment at the system that keeps chewing him up and spitting him back out. So when he lands in a not-to-shabby group foster home full of misfits, he does all he can to not fit in.
That doesn’t fly with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) a furious orphan with a disability who gives Billy all the 411 on superhero lore. Which proves its worth later in the film when Billy is roped into a mystic cave where The Wizard (Djimon Hounsou - who is always in these roles) is looking for a worthy soul to protect the world from evil, and Billy turns out to be the perfect candidate. As if by fate, he is now the full embodiment of Shazam, a walking-talking 1950’s looking pop art who sparkles and cracks with pulpy colors, and dashingly good looks. In other words, he’s like a junior-level Superman, and now looks alot like Zachary Levi from “Chuck.”
This is also where “Shazam!” starts to find its energy. Levi brings off something so winning in his performance that it almost becomes irresistible. Playing the square-jawed muscle man with a bulging lightning bolt strapped to his chest, he projects a wholesome and old-fashion idea of what superheroes used to be. Except, on the inside, he’s a raging teenager going through puberty and using his newfound powers to purchase booze and visit gentlemen’s clubs (and then realizing beer is an acquired taste).
Now, “Shazam!” is hardly the first superhero film to invoke self-refrentiantial and meta awareness. You can go down the list with the tongue and cheek “Deadpool” or Tony Stark’s sarcastic “Iron Man,” or even the screwballish “Superman” and “Flash Gordon” (all of which seem to provide some type of inspiration to Graydon’s script). But “Shazam!” does have a different energy in its coda: it’s funny and light and it’s Levi who makes all of this work, in much the same way Hanks did for “Big.” Levi is smart not to play Billy as a kid with no sense of direction, but with intelligence and wit - he lets Shazam discover his identity in a way that makes this origin seem fresh.
Granted, there’s a choppy villain waiting in the wings for world domination: that’d be Mark Strong’s bald and pissed off Dr. Thaddeus Sivana - a misunderstood kid himself with daddy issues - who is basically jealous that he wasn’t picked by The Wizard in his formidable years. That envy, on the other hand, has given the doc crazy strength, including the ability to control horribly designed and sloppy looking CGI monsters who represent the seven deadly sins. Strong, being the terrific actor he is, struggles to find the right balance in such a one dimensional arch (and it doesn’t help that each digitized monster looks sillier than the last). The final climactic showdown, however, between himself and Shazam works because the stakes feel personal.
Still, “Shazam!” excels when the daffy and vintage performance by Levi soaks up the screen, this despite Sandberg's need to utilize and adopt every superhero cliché in the book. That can be forgiven considering DC is responsible for “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” - and “Shazam!” can finally give the studio a notch on their belt that won’t be regarded as a disappointment. Perhaps we live in this strange parallel universe where DC movies are good again.