“Shazam!” is a superhero movie that’s sweet, funny and pure of heart

As comic book movies grow larger and larger and become epic on a scale far beyond what anyone thought imaginable, there’s something about the pure joy and wonder of watching a costumed hero soaring into the air and shooting lighting out of their hands that has become lost. Enter Shazam!, a movie that embraces what it means to be a child looking up into the sky and dreaming about being a superhero, and wraps it up in an endlessly entertaining, non-stop hilarious and undeniably endearing comic book movie that proves that you don’t need to rack up billions in property damage to have a thrilling time at the movies.

While comic books and their expensive movie adaptations are special to everyone of all ages, what makes them so meaningful to younger viewers is that they give them someone heroic to look up to – an adult figure who represents the best of what they should aspire to be. But here, the young ones get to see someone their own age save the day, doing so by saying the magic word – “Shazam” – and morphing into a hulking, handsome hero with constantly moussed hair and save the day. Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old foster kid, only turns into the impressive hero (Zachary Levi) with every power under the sun (except invisibility, sadly) in physical form, while underneath remaining the same teenager with a smart mouth, chip on his shoulders and a well-guarded broken heart. What director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden have done so well is it take that concept and embrace what is so apparently silly about it and treat it like the most spectacular coming-of-age story ever.

Indeed, even in a world where the last movie from this universe of DC comics movies featured a man who could command an army of fish and featured an octopus that could play the drums (and crush it), the premise of Shazam! pushes the envelope of weirdness for the series. The first 10 minutes of the movie gets that across, introducing a wizard in a flowing red cloak who lives in a cave somewhere in magical dimension, who rests there guarding the Seven Deadly Sins, all of whom take the form of monsters who can corrupt anyone and anything…and also eat them. This wizard is waiting for a champion “pure of heart” who he can give his powers to so they may protect the earth from the Sins, but after these beasts are freed by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) – once a candidate for the powers as a boy before being rebuked – the wizard chooses Batson to be the champion, even though “pure of heart” is a way no one would ever describe him.

Once he has his powers, Billy runs back home and enlists the assistance of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a bit of a fanboy of heroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and Aquaman. Together they do what any teens would do when one of them can turn into an all-powerful hero, which is film themselves breaking stuff, setting off lighting powers, trying to fly, and treating life-threatening situations with utter abandon and glee. One of the best, most perfectly hilarious moments that sums this up comes when the boys are in the middle of stopping an armed heist, and upon realizing he’s bulletproof, they make the robbers shoot him in the face to make sure it’s not just the suit that’s bulletproof. Don’t lie; you would do the same.

Other superhero movies have become all about the spectacle, and for the most part the world of blockbusters has become far better for it – but what is so refreshing about the take on Shazam! is how it puts all the expensive set pieces aside and focus entirely on the concept of Batson being a kid in a superhero’s body, and learning not only how to be a good hero, but a good person. Batson is selfish and cocky, qualities heightened by the powers and give the character real flaws to explore while he’s playing through shenanigans.

Freddy has a blast discovering his foster brother is now a muscle-bound superhero.

None of this is possible without the work from the impressive cast, with Levi, Grazer and their chemistry stealing the show. Levi redefines what it means to get into a super suit and lead a movie, ditching well-worn heroics and fully bringing out the kid in him – literally. Like Tom Hanks in big, he effortlessly conveys the fun, innocence, and fears of a kid in a grown man’s body – never letting you forget that behind the muscles is an insecure, smart-ass teenager. Grazer matches his work with pure, unabashed enthusiasm, getting some of the movies best lines and having a blast alongside his muscle-co-star. Angel is fantastic too, getting some of the more emotional moments that drive the character when he’s back in kid form, with the filmmakers understanding that the key character bits need to occur when Batson is just himself, not his superhero form.

After making a big splash with horror movies like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, Sandberg proves his talent for comedy as well, keeping the movie moving breezily with the moments of hilarity coming at a non-stop pace, but knowing when to put the focus on the more serious, and sometimes dark spots. As for the latter, the movie does have some seriously heavy elements for a movie so whimsical as this, but Sandberg and Gayden’s script know how to find the light and balance things out to keep the tone steady. There are a lot of tones in this movie, ranging from grounded and light-hearted, to tear-jerking and even with scary bits, but it’s all juggled well and makes for a varied experience.

Now, a movie that handles all that can sometimes leak through the cracks here and there, with a certain scene involving Sivana’s lab, filled with people trying to figure out the mystery of the hidden wizard and his realm, not flowing as well and coming off as way too strange to sell the villainy underneath. Then there are the school bullies – because you can’t make a movie like this without school bullies – who seem to have too much free roam around the school. They drive their expensive truck right up to the front of the school, carelessly parking on the lawn, and proceed to beat on Freddy, a disabled kid who walks with a crutch, with no adults around to stop them. Seriously, there are very few responsible adults in this movie. It’s here where the few instances of trying to balance the serious and the quirky don’t always work…but it’s easy to forget them when Batson and Freddy get back to discovering superpowers.

Watching Shazam was like seeing the quirkiness of Thor: Ragnarok, the premise of Big and the setting of Spider-Man: Homecoming all being meshed into one supremely entertaining experience that ultimately feels like nothing you’ve ever seen at the movies. It’s the ultimate form of wish-fulfillment, something kids and adults can place themselves in and get to enjoy the purest joys of the genre. The moments of spectacle are there, and there’s a moment at the end that will get the die-hard comic book fans cheering in their seats (if the countless DC easter eggs didn’t already have them doing so), but they don’t bog down the movie’s most triumphant quality, which is its beating heart and riotous sense of humor that makes for a sweet, always funny and often surprising movie that’s pure of heart on almost every level.

Grade: A-

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