When Deadpool grappled with the ill-tempered Cable last year, he wondered if his resolutely grumpy adversary might have wandered in from the wrong corporate franchise.
“You’re so dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?”
Lately, though, DC has begun to grasp that there is value in not taking its properties too seriously. First with the far-out and Aquaman, and now with Shazam! — a highly family-friendly movie with the feel of a 1980s adventure comedy.
The story follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a Philadelphia teen in foster care who ends up being selected by a subterranean wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be given superpowers. Rather than deliver this absurd backstory with a straight face, director David Sandberg encourages us to chuckle. When Hounsou’s character, in his plummiest wizard voice, tells Batson he can summon superpowers by saying the word “shazam,” Batson cracks up, and so do we.
Even funnier — the incantation actually works. Batson says the magic word and transforms into a red-suited muscleman (Zachary Levi) impervious to bullets, and able leap small buildings in a single bound after a certain amount of practice. These skills come in handy at school, where Batson/Shazam deals with the bullies who are making life miserable for his disabled foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer).
Shazam must learn about his powers as he goes, and for that he must rely on Freddy, a comic book fanatic well-grounded in superhero templates. Grazer plays Freeman as an ingratiating motormouth who’s just shy of a busybody, and his chemistry with Levi is good. So good you don’t much mind that Levi’s bulked-up version of Batson, energized and bubbly, is a completely different character than the rather sullen teen that Asher is playing.
The movie builds on the good vibes created by Levi and Grazer, and benefits from the likable characters who comprise Batson’s foster family, who live in an approximation of Philadelphia. It’s actually Toronto, but there is there is a great deal of second-unit Philly scenery, and locals will get a kick out of the way CGI artists make use of William Penn’s statue and the LOVE sculpture. Or the way Shazam and Freddy discuss possible superhero names, like Mr. Philadelphia, rejected on the grounds that it sounds too much like cream cheese.
A few of our landmarks get trashed as Shazam does battle with a super-villain (Mark Strong) bent on usurping his superpowers. This occurs during the extended finale, which is the only thing the movie gets wrong — adding 10 empty minutes to a movie that, at over two hours, doesn’t need them.
On the other hand, the climax occurs during an awesome-looking winter carnival called Chill-Adelphia, which I’m not sure actually exists, but probably should.
The movie itself is chill. The filmmakers were going for (and mostly achieve) the 1980s Amblin Entertainment feel of a movie out to have an unpretentious good time — a welcome throwback to days before comic books movies became gargantuan and grim.
Shazam! Directed by David Sandberg. With Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong and Faithe Herman. Distributed by New Line Cinema.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 mins.
Parents’ guide: PG-13 (intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material)