Even before watching “Shazam!,” the new DC superhero movie starring Zachary Levi, you already know it won’t take itself too seriously. Why? There’s an exclamation point in the title. Such marquee razzmatazz is usually reserved for singing and dancing — “Oklahoma!,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mamma Mia!” — not world-saving.
There aren’t any chorus lines in “Shazam!” (phew), but there is a refreshingly upbeat spirit that arrives like Evian in the middle of the Sahara. With hero flicks getting as weighty and self-important as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s a relief to watch one let its hair down. These gloomy films could use more exclamation points.
Much of the youthful energy of “Shazam!” comes courtesy of real youth. Sixteen-year-old Asher Angel plays angsty Billy Batson, an orphaned teen whose life changes big-time when a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) in search of a champion summons him to a magic cave and gives him the ability to morph into a full-grown hero (played by Levi). All Billy’s gotta do is say “Shazam,” and he becomes a mega-powerful adult charged with protecting the world against the Seven Deadly Sins — here envisioned as the gargoyles from “Ghostbusters.” The film toggles back and forth between its two younger and older stars.
When Billy turns into red-Spandex-clad Shazam, he acquires super strength, super speed and super, um, lightning hands. His one rocky area is flight.Speaking of Rocky, the movie is set in Philadelphia. Billy lives in a foster home there with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a comic-book junkie, and four other displaced kids. That happy house is the one overly sappy aspect of the otherwise well-balanced film, especially the couple who cares for them. They’re so cheesily kind, you expect the theme song from “The Brady Bunch” to play whenever they enter the frame.
More fun is when Billy and Freddy — the only other person who knows his awesome secret — discover the extent of Shazam’s powers through trial and error. He breaks cinder blocks as easily as matzoh and charges cellphones with electricity from his fingers. The excited pair posts videos of their experiments on YouTube, and the clips quickly rack up thousands of hits. Shazam becomes a local B-list celebrity.As adult Shazam, Levi, who’s just as funny and charming as he was as the love interest on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” brings new enthusiasm to the old kid-turns-into-an-adult routine.
Just because the movie isn’t a depressing slog doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and Santa Claus, either. There’s a villain called Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong, as always straddling the creepy/sexy line), who was rejected by the wizard decades earlier from being the champ. Sivana’s family never believed in his dreamy encounter, and he’s devoted his life to finding the magic man and exacting revenge.
It’s blissfully simple good guy, bad guy stuff. And you don’t have to catch up on 30 preceding movies just to understand the plot.
But what really makes “Shazam!” work are the characters’ relationships. Superhero movies start to reek when their main character is defined by his powers instead of his personality. Filmmakers in this genre too often forget that the audience would like to care about the people in their cash cows. DC understands this obvious truth better than Marvel lately (cough, “Captain Marvel,” cough). In director David F. Sandberg’s movie, we’re just as invested in Billy’s search for his long-lost mom as we are in his ability to jump off a skyscraper unscathed.
Now that’s super!