You could almost hear it when Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman first swung her sword with a grin. It was on the tip of the tongue when Jason Momoa’s Aquaman rode a sea monster to victory. After burning through their biggest DC Comics heroes in a slate of tedious, kill-happy tentpole flicks, Warner Bros. finally learned the magic word that makes wishes come true.
And no, I’m not talking about “holy moly.”
New super-flick “Shazam!” jolts the comics house’s big-screen world to life, a spandex antidote to Superman snapping a bad guy’s neck in “Man of Steel.” (Yeah, that happened. Cool if you forgot.)
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Based on a character that’s been around since before the U.S. entered World War II, “Shazam!” proves magic’s real just by existing. The super man in the red tights was once so much more popular than Superman that DC sued him into obscurity before gaining rights to the character themselves. Since then, he’s been decidedly B-list: more of a trivia item for fans and a chess piece for creators than a serialized star in his own right.
And then there’s the fact that he was called Captain Marvel for most his existence — “Shazam” used to just be the name of the wizard he invokes to claim his powers — despite Marvel Comics’ similar character calling dibs on the codename two decades later.
But here we are in 2019, with a wish-fulfillment tale that feels every bit like a beloved VHS flick that’s seen a few rewinds. Drawing from DC Comics’ most recent iteration of the character, “Shazam!” tells the story of foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel), an incorrigible Philly teen who outsmarts cops, swipes cheesesteaks and bounces in and out of homes while on a rather isolating personal quest. He lands in a group home run by a kind couple, who also take care of a quintet of kids including high-achiever Mary (Grace Fulton), bubbly Darla (Faithe Herman) and quippy, superhero-obsessed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, channeling Stiles from “Teen Wolf” incredibly hard), who quickly latches onto Billy.
After a scrape with a couple bullies, a runaway BIlly finds himself on a subway train that becomes a creepy Willy Wonka ride to the Rock of Eternity, a nexus of magic where dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, really digging into his niche at this point) chooses the not-seemingly-worthy Billy as his champion. Champions are usually musclebound adults with capes, so all Billy has to do is yell “Shazam!” to turn into the World’s Mightiest Mortal (Zachary Levi, beefy and goofy in all the right ways).
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It’s all fun and games until Sivana (Mark Strong; bald, glowering), a twisted genius obsessed with the wizard’s powers, crosses paths with our hero. Oh, and he’s got the demonic Seven Deadly Sins in tow.
Not to go all “they just don’t make ’em like this anymore,” but “Shazam!” feels zapped in from a simpler time. Shouldn’t learning to fly be joined by triumphant swells in the score? Screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg understand that Shazam is the ultimate surrogate for childhood fantasy. They lean in with the strength of Hercules. Of course Shazam wears a trench coat to look like an official, honest-to-Zeus adult. Of course one of the first things Freddy and adult Billy try to do is buy beer. Of course there’s a “Big” reference. Of course a trip to the Rock of Eternity feels like passage to Narnia. This is how you do it, folks.
Freddy’s the audience stand-in, always wearing a rotating assortment of Justice League T-shirts. He collects replica Batarangs and commemorative bullets that bounced off of Superman’s chest — complete with certificate of authenticity. As Shazam’s self-appointed manager, he wastes no time in testing Billy for powers, a delightful montage that’s not the only thing “Shazam!” borrows (or plunders, depending on your generosity) from Sam Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man.”
The tests land the so-called Red Cyclone — or Captain Sparklefingers; the boys can’t decide on a good name — viral YouTube fame, in a particularly 2019 flourish.
One imagines Levi shouting “Tom Hanks!” to channel the powers of that great wizard’s powers, pulling the elastic faces of a child in a hunk’s body with charm and heart. An adventure-comedy veteran at this point (what’s up, “Chuck”), he was born to play the Big Red Cheese. Strong’s Sivana, meanwhile, is a fully realized tragic creation. Warped by toxic masculinity courtesy of his father (John Glover, god-level at playing supervillains’ dads) and driven a little mad by his own childhood run-in with magic, he has pathos and motivation in spades. Sivana’s still not afraid to lose a few hench-folks to some Indiana Jones-style mystical crossfire, so let’s not feel too bad for the guy.
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And Grazer, well, that super-nerd gets all the best lines and roundly carries the movie away from Angel’s low-key Billy, right up to a big twist that would be a shame to spoil. Suffice to say, the baton is passed to an actor so perfectly cast that I almost did a Tex Avery-style double-take in the theater.
Freddy’s also the vessel for many Easter eggs in a movie that lays them on as thick as Cadbury cream. Aside from the aforementioned super-souvenirs, watch for a cute cameo from lightning-powered Mortal Kombat god Raiden. And any Shazam comics fan knows to be on the lookout for a talking tiger. No Aslan-style jungle cats here, but tigers show up as a motif so often that it practically becomes “Where’s Waldo?” There are a couple other fun cameos from the comics; they’re best experienced in the moment with smug geek satisfaction.
Sure, “Shazam!” plays to cheap seats. It’s a family film for the common denominator, with a locker-room joke popping up for every moment of genuine wit. The CGI on the Seven Deadly Sins is rough, speaking of Mortal Kombat; Liu Kang could take ’em out no problem. A couple corners get cut in the last act, and as his heroic alter ego, Billy seems to still be working out the whole “wisdom of Solomon” thing.
But in Shazam’s version of the DC universe, there’s thankfully no room for neck-snapping demigods. Magic lightning bolts put holes in your foster sister’s roof. Christmas is the season for saving the day. Family is found. Wise is cracked.
The magic word DC finally figured out, as anyone could have told them, was “fun.”