Shazam looks goofy. With his scarlet, form-fitting suit, snow-white cape, and big cheesy lightning bolt on his chest, he should work kids’ birthday parties rather than patrol the skies. He looks ridiculous.
And thank goodness.
No offense to the interconnected, multi-layered storytelling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Cinematic Universe, but sometimes it's fun to watch a movie about a doofus in a cape without first having to see six other superhero movies as research.
Technically, “Shazam!” is part of DC, although I can’t imagine how the goofy Shazam and the grim Batman could possibly sit at the same Justice League conference table together. And that’s a good thing — while the Marvel movies have been reliably consistent in recent years, DC has made its movies wilder and more idiosyncratic.
In “Shazam!,” that means a film that isn’t afraid to be uncool, to go for the obvious joke or the cute emotional moment. The result is a superhero that’s unabashedly silly and fun.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old troublemaker who has bounced from foster home to foster home in Philadelphia, running away repeatedly to try and track down his biological mother. Somehow, he has enough good in him that a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) living in an interdimensional cave hands over his powers to him. (I told you it was goofy.)
Soon, Billy finds that by uttering “Shazam!” he can toggle back and forth between a teenage kid and beefy superhero, also named Shazam (Zachary Levi, looking like an overinflated Jimmy Fallon). He’s super-strong, he can fly, and lightning shoots out of his fingertips. It’s pretty boss, and “Shazam!” gets a lot of comic mileage out of the idea of a powerless teen suddenly wielding superpowers.
With his foster brother Freddy (a very funny Jack Dylan Grazer) serving as sidekick and hype man, Shazam learns that with great power comes great opportunity — to make some cash getting your photo taken with tourists, or torment the bullies at school. It’s only when supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) shows up to try and steal those powers that Shazam/Billy learns he’s got to be a hero. As a boy, Sivana had the chance to earn the wizard’s powers and blew it, and now is possessed by monsters who each embody one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Shazam’s evolution from selfishness to selflessness mirrors Billy’s own journey, as he learns to accept the loving foster family he’s been placed in. The unconditional love shown to Billy and his siblings by his foster parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) is heartwarming, and the film isn’t afraid to tug on the heartstrings in its message on the importance of family.
For such a warm and fuzzy film, some of the violence in “Shazam!” pushes the boundaries of family fare, such as a grisly scene where Dr. Sivana unleashes his Seven Deadly Sins on a boardroom full of executives, including Sivana’s controlling father (John Glover). Strong is genuinely menacing as the villain, and Billy seems out of his depth trying to face him.
A Marvel movie wouldn’t have that uneven a tone, but in a way that underlines one of the strengths of “Shazam!”, that it is so unpredictable and refreshingly weird. I’m not sure how DC will fit Shazam into its larger comic book universe and, right now, I kinda don’t want them to.