‘Shazam’ Review: A Delicious Slice of Big Red Cheese
Let’s get the big gripe out of the way, because I really only have one, and otherwise Shazam! is a pretty terrific superhero entertainment. The basic concept here is that when 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) says “Shazam!” he turns until a big buff dude with lightning powers (Zachary Levi). It’s like the movie Big, if Josh Baskin turned into Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks could also catch falling buses with his bare hands.
Angel is solid as Billy; sad, sensitive, and a little broken inside. Levi is funny as Shazam; awkward, uncomfortable, and fumbling — basically a walking pubescent growth spurt. The problem is Billy and Shazam are supposed to be the same person in two bodies, but their personalities are very different. Billy broods in silence. Shazam never shuts up. Ultimately the movie works anyway because both of them are good, and the rest of the film around them is smartly conceived and sharply executed. But I would have liked to see a stronger connection between those two.
Otherwise, I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Shazam!, which is about as likable as any superhero movie of the last ten years. It’s filled with sharp humor, strong relationships, and big exciting (and clear!) set-pieces. It’s thrilling. It’s an escape from your troubles. You feel good when it’s over. In other words, after Aquaman and now Shazam! we’ve stumbled into a delightful Bizarro Universe where DC movies are suddenly fun again.
The earlier installments in the DC Extended Universe are referenced, at least enough that we know this film is set in the same world as Batman v Superman, albeit in a sunnier and more upbeat corner of it. That would be Philadelphia, where orphan Billy Batson moves into the latest in a long line of group homes. His new foster family includes his roommate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer in a star-making performance), who’s obsessed with superheroes. Freddy’s knowledge of comics comes in handy when Billy is brought to the mythical Rock of Eternity, where an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) gives his the powers of seven legends: The wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. Hence the acronym “Shazam.”
The wizard promptly vanishes, leaving Billy to figure out what abilities he now possesses and how to control them, leading to some very funny scenes where Freddy tests Shazam’s limits by smacking him the chest with baseball bats or setting him on fire. Levi and Grazer have terrific comedic chemistry and director David F. Sandberg gives them room to banter; every scene between the two is filled with laughs and energy. Shazam! isn’t one-dimensional though. Part of Billy’s journey is his quest to find his long-missing birth mother, and there are some tough scenes about his search. The darker and more serious moments make the answers Billy finds that much sweeter.
Before those answers, though, Billy and Freddy need to get a hang on being a superhero, because a candidate the wizard rejected named Sivana (Mark Strong) wants Shazam’s magic for himself, and he’s made an alliance with the living embodiments of the Seven Deadly Sins in order to get them. Strong makes a perfect foil for Levi as he struts around with a glowing purple eye of evil, a perpetual scowl, and an absurd suit.
If that sound a little silly, it should: Comics, unlike the first, disappointing wave of DCEU movies, are silly sometimes. That’s part of their charm! Fans occasionally refer to Shazam as “The Big Red Cheese” and this movie is very faithful to the spirit of that nickname. It’s warm and sentimental about blended families, and it sincerely believes in the importance of being a hero and doing the right thing. It’s got plenty of goofy kid-gets-to-play-superhero-for-real humor. And other than some friction between Levi and Asher’s performances, it all works.
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