The Movie Guru: Zachary Levi perfect in ‘Shazam!’
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material.
Screenplay by: Henry Gayden.
Story by: Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke. Shazam created by: Bill Parker and C.C. Beck.
Directed by: David F. Sandberg.
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel, Grace Fulton, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans and more.
Grade: Four stars.
“Shazam!” is easily the most adorable superhero movie of the year.
A sweet, hilarious look at family, identity and what we’d all probably do if we suddenly got superhero powers, “Shazam!” is a breath of fresh air for the superhero genre. It has all the heartwarming charm that’s hard to find in most other entries in the genre, and manages to intersperse wildly hilarious scenes with moments of genuine drama and tension. There’s not a lot of heroic dignity to be found, but you won’t miss it in the slightest.
For those who follow comics, the movie is pretty close to Shazam’s origin story from DC’s New 52 universe. For those who don’t, our hero is a 14-year-old foster kid named Billy Batson who has run away from several foster homes over the years. He ends up in a haphazard but loving group home just as an incident on the subway leaves him with magical powers that can transform him into an adult superhero. He and his new foster brother experiments with his powers, but when a new villain emerges, Billy has to decide what it truly means to be super.
The thematic center of the movie is really all about family, which is bad for the super villain, but great for the audience. Billy’s new foster family is adorable without being too saccharine, the kind of family that a lot of people in the audience will secretly wish they had themselves. The moments of family tension are entirely believable — siblings argue — but so is the love. By the time the credits roll around, you can easily see how family can make the difference between a hero and a villain.
On a more practical level, “Shazam!” is possibly the funniest superhero movie ever made. Director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden have an excellent sense of comic timing, as well as a geek’s understanding of exactly what a 14-year-old boy would really do with a brand-new set of powers. The gas station scene is even more hilarious than it looks like in the trailers, and the whole “power test” sequence is pure fun from beginning to end.
Zachary Levi is absolutely fantastic as the adult Billy, never letting us forget for a moment that he’s really just a 14-year-old in an adult’s body. Asher Angel is also great as the teenage Billy, balancing cynicism and sweetness that always keeps us on his side. Jack Dylan Grazer is also perfect as Freddy, foster brother, superhero expert and manager extraordinaire.
In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like your average superhero movie. There are plenty of realistic elements to the movie, with a fairly realistic look at the cruelties of childhood and some less-than-stellar home environments. The underpinnings of the story, however, are all about light and magic and the kind of innocence that’s hard to find outside of children’s fiction.
Or, if you put it another way, it’s got an adult body and a child’s heart. Just like its hero.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.