“Shazam!” joins the ranks of “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” as a dose of much-needed levity for the DCEU. In fact, it lands nicely between the two: more light-hearted than the former, and more tightly plotted and focused than the latter.
The movie is based on the original Captain Marvel, who debuted in the 1940s and at his peak outsold even the vaunted Man of Steel himself (to the tune of a million issues per month). Screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation”) lean into the cheese factor and wish-fulfillment nature of the character more than one would expect, but without going overboard. The result is a bubbly story with a hint of grit and a solid emotional core that earns its laughs as well as its emotional beats.
The character has one of the weirder and more unique premises in the annals of superherodom, allowing for an intriguing, fresher origin story: young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old loner whose been in and out of foster homes for several years. Fate brings him to the doorstep of an ancient wizard, Shazam (Djimon Honsou), who declares him a champion for good and bestows a gift upon him: By speaking the wizard’s name out loud he transforms into an adult (Zachary Levi) with superpowers. The catch is that Billy is very much an awkward, self-absorbed kid in the body of a superman.
As we know by now, with great power comes great responsibility, which Billy lacks, and the guidance of his superhero groupie foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is sketchy at best. The two record their antics as Billy test drives his new body, going viral and attracting the attention of a former candidate for champion, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, in his umpteenth comic book movie after “Kick-Ass,” “Green Lantern,” the “Kingsman” series, ad infinitum). Sivana was deemed unworthy and rejected by the wizard, and pursues Billy with the assistance of otherworldly devils, the Seven Deadly Sins.
Thus the glaring flaw in “Shazam!”, one that apparently isn’t limited to the MCU: weak, one-dimensional villains. Strong is fine in a role that demands little from him, and Sivana gets a tantalizing back story, but there’s little to him or his quest beyond power for power’s sake. He has neither the nuance nor the flamboyancy of a memorable menace. On the upside, Sandberg comes from a horror background, and that shows when it comes to the design of the Seven Deadly Sins, CGI creations that are surprisingly (and impressively) ghoulish and grotesque.
In all fairness, “Shazam!” is more interested on exploring its Superman-meets-“Big” conceit, and also dives deep into Billy’s story of a lonely kid with abandonment issues trying to wrap his head around the concept of family. Gayden and Sandberg pull heavily from Geoff Johns’ update of the character, giving him an expanded foster family and wringing every bit of pathos they can without beating the viewer over the head with it too much. It often skews surprisingly dark, but without drowning out the movie’s slapstick humor, carefree goofiness, or heartfelt earnestness.
Releasing it between the twin powerhouses of “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: Endgame” may prove to be a stroke of genius – “Shazam!” is a nice palate cleanser between servings of Marvel grit.