That Shazam! could have easily been released in the Eighties is no criticism. If anything, it's unabashedly old-school tone is one of its greatest assets. Lighthearted where most superhero films are sobersided and featuring a title character that revels in his superpowers rather than treating them like a burden, Shazam! is an absolute joy from start to finish, and continues the DCU's successful course correction from the grim, sloppy and overstuffed likes of Justice League and Suicide Squad to the more winning and excellently packaged likes of Wonder Woman and Aquaman.
The film begins in 1974 as young Thaddeus Sivana is magically whisked away to the Rock of Eternity where he meets a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who has been searching for centuries for a boy who is pure of heart so that he can transfer his powers to him to help protect against the Seven Deadly Sins. Alas, Thaddeus, embittered by constantly being treated like a second-class citizen by his father and older brother, is unable to resist temptation and fails Shazam's test. Cut to the present day where an adult Thaddeus (Mark Strong), who has spent a good deal of his life poring over testimonies of other people who have been taken and rejected by the wizard, finally unlocks the code that allows him to return to the Rock of Eternity, free the Seven Deadly Sins, and exact revenge upon his father and brother.
Yet the dying wizard has one more trick up his sleeve and that trick comes in the form of 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid whose desire to track down his real mother has prevented him from growing attached to any of the numerous foster families with whom he's been placed. It's too bad since his latest foster family, headed up by former foster kids Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and comprised of college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), delightful moppet Darla (Faithe Herman), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), budding techie Eugene (Ian Chen), and disabled wisecracking superhero nerd Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), are a warm and loving bunch. Naturally, Billy will develop an attachment to them and that growing bond, particularly with Freddy, provides the film with its emotional power.
Family, as Shazam! notes, is not just a word. The lack of family is what drives both Billy and Thaddeus and, whilst the former finds a way to become part of a family, the latter appears to have let his jealousy and resentment cloud any opportunities for those types of relationships. Strong never forgets this in his characteristically intense portrayal, and that is what makes Thaddeus such an effective and all-too-human villain. His brooding also provides a great contrast to Zachary Levi's giddy and irresistible performance as a kid trapped in a superhero's body as Billy, chosen by the wizard, suddenly finds himself transformed into a musclebound figure. Shades of Big abound - there's even a nod to the film's famous electronic keyboard scene - but what truly makes this special is Billy's unalloyed jubilance at discovering his superpowers, a joy shared by Freddy, who is the only one aware that Billy can turn into Shazam. Yet, again, Freddy's joy is underlined by the bittersweet recognition that the only way he can experience being a superhero is vicariously through Billy.
The finale could have benefited from tighter editing and many may bemoan the rote rendering of the Seven Deadly Sins, but these are but minor quibbles for Shazam! is a film that is an unpretentious delight.
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Written by: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Jovan Armand, Ian Chen, Adam Brody, John Glover