‘Shazam!’ Delivers the Ultimate Superhero Fantasy With Big Laughs

Shazam!” goes back to a time when superhero movies were meant to be just pure, joyous fun. It hilariously looks at the genre from the point of view of a kid, which is when most of us first discover grown-ups in tights and capes. Comic book-based films have become serious objects of pop culture discussion as of late, fusing with everything from race to debates about gender equality. Of course there is nothing wrong with that. Such is the nature of any art form that has its moment. But “Shazam!” gets in touch with the very essence of imagining characters commanding strange powers and facing off with ghoulish villains. This is one of the best films from DC, which has struggled to catch up to the Marvel behemoth at the box office. Sometimes you just have to step back and not take yourself that seriously.

14-year-old Billy (Asher Angel) is the quintessential movie foster kid. Having lost his mother at a very young age, he’s been through various homes, tends to run away and is now in the care of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans). They are perfectly nice foster parents, even a bit too jolly. In their home also live Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary (Grace Fulton), Darla (Faithe Herman), Eugene (Ian Chen) and Pedro (Jovan Armand). By chance Billy finds himself wandering into a strange cave where a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) proclaims he is “the chosen one.” By touching the Wizard’s mighty rod, Billy is suddenly given a new identity, literally. The wizard dissolves, the smoke clears, and Billy is now a grown, very buffed man in a red costume, white cape and golden boots, Shazam (Zachary Levi). Terrified he seeks help from Freddy, who is the house expert on all things super hero. Keeping Billy’s dilemma secret, they test his abilities which include super strength, electric bolts zapping from his fingers and a dicey ability to fly. It’s a lot of fun, until the mad Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) appears, determined to take Shazam’s powers while unleashing a pack of demons, the Seven Deadly Sins, on the world.

What makes “Shazam!” particularly fun is how it brings to life what countless kids (and even adults) imagine every day. To be given super powers, an indestructible body and a double identity is the ultimate dream, and blatantly absurd, which is why it’s a great fantasy. “Shazam!” gets this and gives us a wonderful superhero story while making fun of what the premise entails. Like “Deadpool,” but with a much more family-friendly touch, it’s in on the joke with the audience. The director is David F. Sandberg, who is best known for the decidedly unfunny “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation.” Yet he shows a command of comedy on par with James Gunn’s work in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Moments which in a typical comic book movie would be delivered with epic pretension become gags here. When Shazam and Freddy come across two muggers in a liquor store the whole scene turns into a hilarious riff where the thieves shoot Shazam and the bullets ricochet off his chest. Freddy then eggs them on to keep shooting, even at Shazam’s face, just to test it out. The robbery stopped, Freddy and Shazam buy beer for the first time and spit it out (“that literally tasted like vomit”). When the two begin a YouTube channel showing off Shazam’s powers it’s a hilarious commentary on social media culture. Other scenes are just wonderfully goofy, as when Shazam strolls down a mall charging people’s phones with his electric blasts (occasionally someone’s phone will happen to explode). Exciting action sequences turn into good laughs, like when Shazam must save a bus flying off a freeway…which he caused while being irresponsible with his powers.

The screenplay by Henry Gayden, based on a DC title, also works because it has real heart. At its core it’s a comedy about family and friendship, as well as the need to belong. In essence it’s also a parable about maturity. Once Billy becomes Shazam, it soon goes to his head because he’s still just a kid after all. Freddy, who is disabled, sees him as everything he would like to be, but also tries to keep his ego on the ground. Going into the third act, the way the movie deals with Billy’s loss of his real mother is more mature than we would expect, willing to go somewhere truly heartbreaking. Even the villain, the stone-faced Dr. Thaddeus, can trace his evil nature to an overbearing, bullying father and brother from his childhood. A scene where he storms in a corporate boardroom and extracts revenge is pure dark humor. Surely the Dr.’s squad of demons are also an inside joke, being named after the Seven Deadly Sins without any apparent connection to Catholicism. They are there to serve the purpose of all snarling CGI monsters in these movies, to smash things and bite heads, and maybe that’s the point.

For DC’s film section over at Warner Brothers this is a satisfying hit that along with “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman” signals a turn towards better material, after years of falling behind Marvel. It was a smart choice to go for something lighter, after a slew of gloomy, massive opuses that tried too hard to be “edgy” (we all remember that neck-snapping kill in “Man of Steel”). The humor hits all the right notes, especially due to a great performance by Zachary Levi, who perfectly captures the idea of a 14-year-old in a grown hero’s body. He’s likeable and goofy, but also endearing by the end. Mark Strong is all menace as Dr. Thaddeus, rarely grinning, always seeming about to smirk.

“Shazam!” has it all when it comes to this genre. Capes, averted catastrophes, strange portals, and even lunchtime bullies who torture Freddy but will soon have to get their just desserts. Yes, much of it is silly, but when it’s done with heart it might have more to say than you would think. Besides, even the most snobby soul in the audience wishes deep down they could fly.

Shazam!” opens April 5 in theaters nationwide.