Despite their adventures ostensibly being aimed at kids, most superheroes aren’t children themselves. Except for the Spider-Men and occasional moments with the younger X-Persons, we rarely see a superhero revel in the sheer delight of having awesome powers.
So part of what makes Shazam! a treat is that the hero is a 14-year-old boy, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a cynical foster kid who doesn’t believe in dumb things like “family” but sure gets a kick out of having super strength and the gift of flight. Yes, when Billy says the magic word he transforms from himself into a grown man (played by Zachary Levi), but that grown man is still Billy inside, and his sidekick — fellow foster kid Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled wiseacre — is a young teen in both body and mind (think Big, as I know the makers of Shazam! did once or twice). The sequence in which the two conduct experiments to find out exactly what Billy’s new powers are is just what you’d expect two 14-year-olds, one rebellious and one hyper-smart, to do.
Billy gets his powers after being whisked to a magical realm where a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) bestows them upon him. Some 45 years earlier, another young boy had the same chance but was denied because his heart wasn’t pure enough. He grew up to be Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a would-be supervillain from whose eyes seven demons representing the deadly sins can emerge when summoned to wreck havoc on mortals. He wants the Shazam powers, too, and is interested to learn that someone seems to have acquired them.
As villains go, Sivana is weak and forgettable — your standard “I want to rule the world” zealot with no distinguishing characteristics. He does have one memorable scene where director David F. Sandberg’s affinity for horror (he made Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) is put to good use, but otherwise the movie just isn’t interested in him.
What is the movie interested in? Havin’ fun. Henry Gayden’s screenplay has no subtext to ponder, no comments on the human condition. It takes place in the same world as Batman and Superman but has no strong ties to the DC Extended Universe movies. The scenes of superheroic derring-do are familiar scenarios — thwarting a stick-up, rescuing a bus dangling over a bridge — performed with good humor and youthful bravado. Though I laughed and enjoyed myself, the whole thing began to evaporate from my memory as soon as it was over.
What stands out most is that it’s fine as a superhero movie but better as a warmhearted story about makeshift families. Billy comes to appreciate Freddy and the four other fosters who share a home, accepting that they’re stronger together and setting the stage for team adventures in the future. Between this, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, it’s clear that the way forward for the DCEU is to relax, lighten up, and quit being so gloomy.