Review: ‘Shazam!’ is Lighthearted Fun
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a runaway foster kid, roaming the streets of Philadelphia. His independent agenda and mischievous antics are a constant irritation to authorities, as he bounces foster families and police in a constant search to find his estranged mother. After a gutsy run-in with the law, Billy is placed in the care of Victor Vazquez (Cooper Andrews) and his wife, Rosa (Marta Milans). Former foster kids themselves, the Vazquez family run a loving home, where Billy meets the ambitious high school student Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), intense gamer Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), shy Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand), talkative Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), and superhero fanatic Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, It). One day, after defending Freddy from a pair of obnoxious bullies, Billy is transported to a secret lair, where an aging wizard offers him an extraordinary gift: by speaking the wizard’s name, Shazam, Billy can transform into a grown up superhero, played by Zachary Levi.
Directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), Shazam! is not the film you expected. Advertised as a superhero remix of the enduring Penny Marshall/Tom Hanks classic, Big — which is no doubt a small part of the film, there is even a direct reference to the 1988 film’s most iconic moment during Billy’s first battle with a super villain — Shazam! is an intriguing story about a superhero who doesn’t deserve his powers. As Billy adjusts to his new powers, which includes shooting electricity from his fingertips and an invulnerability to bullets, he acts selfishly, using them to purchase beer, acquire fame through You Tube videos and public appearances, and panhandle for cash on the streets, pushing away his would-be friends and family in the process. His behavior offers a compelling angle: the reason you found Billy interesting in the first act is the same reason you find him obnoxious in the second. This isn’t about building self-confidence or controlling his powers, but earning them in the first place; Billy has to learn to be a good person.
Naturally, the standout here is Levi, who conveys Billy’s childlike humor and immaturity with youthful energy. There is never a doubt you’re watching a kid in a grown man’s body. Levi has plenty of experience with this sort of role as he is best known for his role in Chuck, a tongue-in-cheek show about an average geek who becomes a spy. Sharing the role with Levi, Angel is just as charismatic as the likable, but also aggravating Billy. You genuinely believe both actors are playing the same character.
On the other end of the law, Mark Strong carries his weight as Shazam’s nemesis, Dr. Sivana. Strong’s performance as Sivana is straight-to-the-point and isn’t subtle. He is the bad guy and he isn’t pre-occupied with trying to hide it. This is business as usual for Strong as his résumé is comprised of many villainous roles, making it a breath of fresh air whenever he does play a likable ally, such as his turn in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman.
Rounding out Shazam!’s coming of age experience is Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, which is as vibrant as Sandburg’s decidedly colorful visual palette. Wallfisch delivers a traditional, heroic score that feels at home with the adventurous soundtracks many of us grew up with in the late 80s and early 90s. It is neither a distinctive nor memorable score, but it is not afraid to play up the excitement and fantasy of the material and for that, it carries the films well.
Shazam! will surpass your expectations as a lighthearted superhero romp by delivering plenty of thrills and laughs, but it will also engage you with a meaningful story about family and the purity of selflessness, making it a far more touching experience than you expected.