The most obvious thing that “Shazam!” lacks is gravitas. And grimness. Also bleakness, darkness and relentless self-seriousness. In other words, it’s terrific fun, and none of the things that were threatening to turn DC Entertainment into the cinematic equivalent of a black hole. Just when the world needs a superhero with a gift for silliness, here he is in a movie whose best superpower turns out to be a good heart.
Comic book fans will remember “shazam” as the magic word Billy Batson uttered to turn himself into Captain Marvel—who is now a woman; nothing stays the same in the comic book world. This new film is Billy’s origin story, set mostly in Philadelphia. As played by Asher Angel, Billy is a streetwise 14-year-old who’s fled one foster home after another ever since he was separated from his mother at a carnival when he was a child. In keeping with tradition, he discovers that by saying “shazam” he turns into a bemuscled creature called Shazam—the big guy is played, with delicious comic chops, by Zachary Levi.
At first Billy desn’t know what to call his other self. Neither does his new friend Freddy, a fast-talking member of the latest foster family Billy has been placed with. (He’s played, extremely well, by Jack Dylan Grazer.) Both kids are astonished by the transformation, so they try out various names for the adult-size figure with the white cape, red tights and incandescent lightning bolt on his chest: Thundercrack, Mr. Philadelphia, Human Powerstorm, Red Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers are a few of the provisional monikers.
And the adult-size figure isn’t an adult. He’s big in the sense of the Tom Hanks character in “Big,” a kid in a grownup’s body. (There’s a fleeting tribute to that comedy classic during a chase sequence when Shazam and the villain, Mark Strong’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, run across not one but two floor-piano keyboards in a toy store.) “Shazam!” is untidy at best; Marie Kondo would never approve. The running time is excessive, the narrative repetitive, the action beset by a plague of decreasingly entertaining CGI monsters summoned up by the increasingly monotonous Sivana. But the film’s unfailing source of enjoyment is Zachary Levi’s charming, endearing performance as Shazam.
This hero is muscular, yes, but also goofy and awkward, a sort of lounge- lizard cousin of Mr. Incredible (or a vaudeville version of Superman.) Shazam is earnest, and eager to please, but he’s only a kid beneath the spandex. Even after he come into his full powers, he’s more of a Philly celebrity than a savior of the world, the universe or the galaxy. And that’s perfectly fine. In a world of overblown comic-book epics, it’s nice to know that for once the stakes are low.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.