Much more than Wonder Woman and Aquaman, if there’s ever been an antithesis to Zack Snyder’s glowering, growly early chapters of the DC Comics movie universe, Shazam! is it. This is a movie fully deserving of that extra bit of punctuation in its title as it exuberantly shouts fun and joy, wearing its bursting heart on its crimson and gold sleeves.

Said sleeves being part of the immaculately designed costume seemingly spray-painted onto the bulging physique of Zachary Levi, who plays the titular hero here and is an absolute joy to behold throughout the film with his goofball grin and full-body emoting. He brings a highly infectious levity to his superheroics that can only be described as child-like. Which is fitting, because he is one.

See Levi’s caped Shazam is actually the musclebound adult superhero alter ego of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year old foster kid with a history of running away from every new home he gets to as he tries to track down the mother he accidentally got separated from as a young boy and who he fervently believes is still out there looking for him. Even when Billy finds himself placed in a lovable new foster home, surrounded by foster siblings like Superman and Batman-obsessed Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) he still only thinks about running.

Until he runs right into a subway train which mysteriously transports him to the otherworldly lair of ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The ancient wizard is dying and has chosen Billy to be his magical champion to battle the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins who have escaped back into the world. All Billy has to do now is say the wizard’s name and a magical bolt of lightning transforms him into Levi’s strapping form, complete with magical gifts: The wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage and invulnerability of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.

Of course, Billy knows none of the above, and ropes in a geeked out Freddie – who compensates for a physical disability with a disarming motormouth wit – to help him discover his abilities and what being a hero entails (and, hilariously, come up a with a superhero name, like Captain Sparkle Fingers and Zap-tain America). Billy will need to learn his gifts rather quickly though, as the heartless Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has been chosen as the Seven Deadly Sins’ own magical champion and he wants Billy’s power for his own. Before we get to the throwdown though, Billy needs to buy his first beer and get popular online!

It’s this meaty middle portion of Shazam!, usually relegated to a few brief scenes in other superhero movies, as Billy and Freddie experiment with the extent of the former’s powers, where director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) has the film barreling along. For the most part, this chunk of the film eschews the big action set pieces of many similar brightly coloured affairs here, choosing to instead keep the focus far more intimate and character-driven. Powered by the effortless 1-to-2 chemistry between Grazer and Angel/Levi though, it is still some of the most spandex fun you can have in a cinema this year.

Even when Sivana shows up and things get all punchy, Sandberg masterfully balances the tone between the villain’s relentless violence and Billy’s playfulness. The film is also stuffed with Easter eggs (the most obvious being a nod to Tom Hanks 1988 fantasy company Big, to which Shazam! owes a definite debt to) and inside gags relating back to its rather complex and often very silly comic book history, which will keep eagle-eyed fans even further entertained. Sandberg, who has only been known for horror features before this, does thread through some occasional bursts of dark violence and some scary horror (and even a few mild swear words), but it never overpowers the overwhelming sense of youthful fun.

Or the film’s heart, as the script from screenwriter Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) pulses with as much palpable emotion as it does bouncy ebullience. Some of the bigger character reveals are actually rather predictable, but the cast – including Billy’s extended foster family – sell the dramatics extremely well, especially Angel and Grazer. Similarly, the film actually goes out of its way to setup Sivana’s backstory and how it parallels Billy’s woeful tale of familial abandonment. However, there’s little to no nuance in Strong’s one-note character, even though he is clearly having a blast playing the physically imposing baddie.

Even with those flaws though, Shazam! is still one hell of a fun new entry in the DCEU, continuing the comic book universe’s winning streak after a major course correction. Levi in particular, pulling off the complex juggling act of lantern-jawed hero and fumbling young goofball (“Damn these adult hands!”), was born to play this role and simply excels every second he’s on screen.

There are other minor niggles, like some characters playing nearly four decades older versions of themselves, yet seemingly not having aged more than a couple years. Or the fact the designs and CG realizations of the Seven Deadly Sins is the very definition of generic child-scaring monsters, like toys you would find in a Happy Meal. Shazam!’s biggest criticisms though are tangentially related to Sivana as his extended origin story takes up a huge chunk of the film’s opening, and it’s all very serious business, right down to the muted and very washed out cinematography. Combined with a climactic fight between hero and villain that drags on just a few beats too long, it slows down the bookend chapters of the film a tad. With a runtime of 132 minutes, it’s clear a tighter edit may have been needed.

Sandberg, who is a self-proclaimed longtime fan of the comics, also clearly gets the Big Cheese, as the hero’s been affectionately nicknamed over the years. He deeply understands that Shazam’s story is all about childhood wish fullfilment – whether it’s wishing for power or just the love of those around you – and how the granting of those wishes don’t always turn out the way we expect them to.

He is also fully cognizant that this world is one that’s slightly silly (make sure you stay seated for at least the first of the film’s two post-credit scenes to see just how silly things can get) and leans into it hard, never ashamed of its four-quadrant pop colour roots. It’s not anywhere as cartoonish as Aquaman got, but this is still the type of film that both young and young at heart will enjoy thoroughly. In short, it’s pure magic.

Last Updated: April 1, 2019

Shazam!
It may be in need of some tighter editing in places, but thanks to fantastic performances - led by Zachary Levi in a role he was born to play - and director David F. Sandberg's innate understanding of the source's all-ages tone, Shazam! is a thunderously entertaining delight!
7.5
/10

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