Superhero adventure, rated PG; Regal Santa Fe 6, Regal Stadium 14, Violet Crown; 3.5 chiles
The superhero infestation of the multiplex is thoroughly complete, and surprisingly varied. In the past two years alone, we’ve had an African superhero movie (Black Panther), a cosmic superhero movie (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), an underwater superhero movie (Aquaman), a LEGO superhero movie (The LEGO Batman Movie), a raunchy superhero comedy (Deadpool 2), a superhero horror movie (Venom), a superhero Western (Logan), a superhero war movie (Wonder Woman), a superhero heist movie (Ant-Man and the Wasp), and many, many more. With current special-effects technology and seemingly inexhaustible audience demand, superheroes can now be anything.
What we didn’t have over that span, however, was a superhero story in the traditional sense, in which a super-powered person with a cape and a secret identity zips around and cheerfully saves those who are in danger. A return to these basics feels welcome, and particularly for the Warner Brothers studio, which has steered DC heroes Superman and Batman into waters too dour and unpleasant for most viewers, prompting online backlash and diminishing box office returns. They’ve mended some fences with their (overly) demanding fans with Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and now Shazam! offers a complete palate cleanser for their superhero line.
This return to the genre’s roots is prompted by one of the first superheroes ever invented: Shazam was created in 1939, just one year after Superman. The character, known as Captain Marvel before a trademark infringement suit prompted a name change to Shazam (avoiding confusion in current multiplexes in the process), centered on a boy named Billy Batson who transforms into a costumed hero whenever he speaks the word “shazam.”
On the page, and in the final throes of the Great Depression, this concept no doubt played as wish fulfillment for young children who plopped down their dimes for a little escapism. Indeed, the character’s comics were even more popular than Superman’s in its early years. On the big screen in 2019, however, the property is handled with a bit more irreverence, with director David F. Sandberg and a whip-smart duo of writers treating the kid-to-adult transformation like the 1988 Tom Hanks comedy Big, even slyly referencing their inspiration through visual cues.
For much of the film’s first half, we follow the orphan Batson (Asher Angel) as he bounces between various foster homes, eventually settling in with a family full of foster kids, where he befriends a boy named Freddy Freeman ( Jack Dylan Grazer), and plans his next escape. These plans are scuttled when he finds himself whisked to a strange realm where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) grants him the power to transform to Shazam (Zachary Levi). He returns to Freddy as a muscle-bound costumed man, and the two set about discovering both the extent of Shazam’s powers and the equally mysterious benefits of being an adult (a trip to buy beer is particularly amusing).
Unfortunately, a villain named Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has also visited the wizard and stolen powers from him. Sivana, along with an array of demons named for the seven deadly sins, pursues Shazam in hopes of adding Shazam’s power to his own. This puts Shazam’s superhero learning curve under pressure, and he must master his powers in time to stop Sivana. The special effects during this process are boldly rendered, like four-color newsprint comic strips come to life, and the demons have a slimy, slightly unreal look that sometimes recalls stop-motion puppetry.
The film’s charms aren’t found in this battle, however, but in the scenes that showcase lower stakes. The Marvel cinematic superheroes are in the midst of a 20-movie soap opera, and are currently dealing with the fact that half of the living creatures in the universe have been turned to dust. By comparison, it’s refreshing to watch a cape movie in which a big moment might revolve around stopping a runaway bus or rescuing teens from falling off a Ferris wheel. This focus on smaller scale and a child’s perspective also allows for a sense of wonder — long missing from superhero films — to seep in. In Captain Marvel, when Carol Danvers receives her powers, she barely blinks, and even seems bored and burdened by her newfound skills. A great deal of the film’s running time is given over to the fact that having superpowers would, in fact, be incredibly cool.
This entire premise could come across as labored and inauthentic without the acting talent of young Angel and adult Levi to the prop it up. Levi in particular embodies the goofy innocence of a child who doesn’t know his own strength; he and Angel share minor tics and line delivery to bring the character to a well-rounded realization. A cross-generational approach is given over to the writing as well. There are moments in the movie that will make only the adults in the audience laugh, and moments that will make only the children laugh. Despite a few brief moments that may be frightening for young children, it’s a movie that is truly for all ages, bringing back the basic delights of superhero cinema. Those pleasures were once so simple that the 1977 Superman film was sold with the tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”