I have no personal recollection of Shazam! being an actual comic book; I only remember it as a lame Saturday morning live action series in the 1970s. So when I first saw the billboards for this Shazam!, I figured it was another TV show like Arrow or Gotham. After all, who would pay to see this campy character in a movie theater? But lo and behold, DC/Warner Bros. saw big-screen potential in this property, and for once their intuition was right.
Interpreting the story as an inventive teen comedy, Shazam! feels both old-fashioned and fresh, a cross between Big (in that 14-year-old Billy Batson is magically transformed into a decidedly adult superhero) and the 1979 Superman. It is at turns hilarious and heartfelt, innately aware of its silliness, but owning it.
Playing the "grownup" version of Billy, Zachary Levi leads a terrific cast of no-names, and his portrayal of a teenage boy exploiting his newfound powers is delightfully convincing. (Oddly, Disney TV star Asher Angel, who plays the 14-year-old Billy, lacks Levi's rakish humor, and "human" Billy's morose quest to find his birth mother is the only thing that drags the film down.) Other standouts in the cast include the talented Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy's foster brother/sidekick Freddy and the adorable Faithe Herman as their foster sister. (The film is in fact a lovely tribute to foster families.)
Mark Strong plays a fairly standard villain, but I actually like that his storyline is stripped down to a basic "Bad guy wants to kill Billy." And I loved the film's running joke about Billy having no official superhero moniker, because in the comics and TV show he was called, in fact, Captain Marvel. And DC obviously can't run with that in 2019. So Freddy comes up with a series of ridiculous suggestions – "Captain Sparklefingers", "Sir Zaps-A-Lot" – and we get the feeling that poor Billy will never get a proper supername.
The film features some surprisingly gruesome deaths, and monsters modeled on the seven deadly sins, including lust(!), which some parents may find an ill fit with the juvenile proceedings. But as we live in a post Harry Potter world, young teens should be used to these dark turns by now.
Shazam! is a perfect popcorn flick, a fun entry in what may be a new wave of superhero pictures (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is another) that are goosing the genre just as it threatens to turn stale.