There’s something to be said about B-list superheroes. The average moviegoer (who doesn’t have a doctorate in comic-book lore) has lower expectations, and we also don’t have as many preconceived notions about what the movie should be. “Shazam!,” featuring a game turn by Zachary Levi and a cadre of good child actors, slots nicely into this space, calling to mind “Big” (and at one point directly referencing the Tom Hanks classic) but also making me hope the kid-on-the-inside Shazam can exchange dialog with the dour Batman at some point.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, who gave us the tight horror films “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation,” “Shazam!” is surprisingly overlong at 2 hours, 12 minutes. And this DC Extended Universe film borrows a problem from Marvel wherein the villain is an opposite version of the hero. So it doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre, but I can tell everyone making the film had fun treading this well-worn ground.
When our hero, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), joins his latest foster family (which pleasantly plays a bigger role than I expected), the movie is a real kick. The magically physically aged Billy (Levi, recently seen in (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 2) starts to have fun testing his newfound superpowers with foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). The movie’s funniest sequence is in a convenience store. “I’d like to purchase some of your finest beer, please,” Shazam tells the clerk, and when two stick-up artists come in, it actually gets funnier.
Writer Henry Gayden – working from a story developed with Darren Lemke – has fun with sequences where Billy does superheroic things while trying to act like an adult. We get satisfying moments when he takes on school bullies and snort-worthy moments when he uses his morphing power to sneak past a school security guard. (One thing that saddens me is that “Shazam!” normalizes the public-school security apparatus, including metal detectors, but I guess that is a fair representation of modern times.)
Gayden also nicely develops the foster family, which includes four kids in addition to Billy and Freddy, notably the scene-stealing Faithe Herman (Annie from “This Is Us”), whose Darla is only “moderately” good at keeping secrets.
While Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) is a standard villain in that he’s the “anti” version of the good guy, we actually get his tragic backstory to start the film, making us potentially sympathize with him. Also, his hench-demons – the Seven Deadly Sins in monster form – are effective CGI creations, and when Sivana gets revenge against a boardroom full of suits at his wicked father’s (John Glover) company, it’s highly entertaining.
“Shazam!” lags here and there (my proposed legislation that all movies be 100 minutes isn’t gaining any traction), and I think it could’ve leaned into the kid-in-adult-situations comedy more. At one point, Billy warps into a strip club, but we’re basically asked to imagine the humor that would result rather than seeing it. This is, after all, a kids’ movie at heart. But it should be noted that it has scary stuff (particularly the Sin monsters), like kids’ movies used to have in the old days.
Speaking of the old days, Shazam! dates all the way back to 1939, making him only one year younger than Superman. He was originally called Captain Marvel, but Marvel’s Captain Marvel then claimed that name and now DC’s is called Shazam, which is also his catchphrase. The story behind all that is convoluted, but the “Shazam!” movie is a straightforward “finding your powers, whatever they may be” yarn. He’s not the most famous of the DCEU gang, but he’s definitely the most fun in a family-friendly way.