“Shazam!”, the latest installment from the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), is a lightweight superhero movie as funny and goofy as expected from its silly promise, and that is surely a nice fresh change compared to the grim ponderousness of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) or the bloated campiness of “Aquaman” (2018). Although it sometimes feels like an overextended one-joke movie especially during its final act, the movie still has some spirit and charm to engage us, and the overall result is better than other DCEU movies except, yes, “Wonder Woman” (2017).
Mainly set in Philadelphia, the story of the movie is about a 14-year-old orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel). When he was a little kid, Billy happened to be separated from his dear mother at a local carnival, so he was put into foster care after being taken by the police, but he has stubbornly searched for his mother while becoming a troublemaker who has bounced from one foster home to another during next several years. After his latest trouble, he is sent to another new foster home, and his new foster parents, Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans), warmly greet him along with several other kids in the foster home, but he still wants to keep looking for his mother even though his search has already reached to dead end.
On one day, something very strange happens to Billy shortly after he runs away from a couple of school bullies and then gets on a subway to evade them. He is suddenly transported alone to a dark, mysterious place, and then he comes across an old wizard played Djimon Hounsou, who has been looking for a right guy to succeed him for many years. Although Billy does not look that promising as his potential successor to protect the Rock of Eternity, the wizard transfers all the power he has to Billy before being perished, and Billy is surprised to see himself transformed into an adult superhero played by Zachary Levi.
What follows next is not so far from those comic situations in “Big” (1988), which incidentally receives a nice homage at one point in the story. Quite perplexed and awkward with how he looks now, Billy seeks help from Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the kids in Billy’s new foster home who is also your average nerdy superhero expert. Quite willing to be Billy’s sidekick, Freddy helps Billy testing his superpower step by step, and we accordingly get several humorous moments including a silly but uproarious scene where Billy and Freddy happen to come across a couple of armed robbers at a local supermarket.
Of course, their circumstance later becomes quite serious with the expected appearance of a powerful villain. Since he was rejected by the wizard many years ago as shown during the prologue scene, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has looked for any possible way to access to the Rock of Eternity, and he finally goes to that place and then unleashes seven powerful demons named after, what do you know, the Seven Deadly Sins. Shortly after getting his own private payback moment, Dr. Sivana looks for his destined opponent as instructed by these demons, and it does not take much time for Billy to discern how serious the situation becomes for not only him but also several others around him including Freddy.
Although the movie loses its narrative pacing a bit around that narrative point, the Henry Gayden’s screenplay, which is based on the story written by him and his co-writer Darren Lemke, maintains its irreverent sense of humor at least, and director David F. Sandberg, a Swedish filmmaker who previously drew our attention via his first two feature films “Lights Out” (2016) and “Annabelle: Creation” (2017), steadily balances the movie between humor and drama. While we continue to get plenty of small and big laughs along the plot, Billy’s continuing search for his mother is handled enough gravitas and poignancy, and that is the main reason why his predictable moment of realization later in the film works on the emotional level.
I must point out that the movie eventually becomes less interesting during its final act, which is packed with lots of busy CGI actions. At least, Sandberg and his crew did a fairly competent job of generating enough fun and excitement, and I came to forgive several notable shortcomings including those plainly hideous CGI monsters, which are not very distinguishable from each other in my humble opinion.
As the comic center of the film, Zachary Levi, who has been mainly known for TV series “Chuck”, willingly throws himself into absurdity and preposterousness. While I think his broad performance could be more organically connected with Asher Angel’s relatively more earnest performance, Levi ably delivers numerous comic moments with gusto, and he is also matched well by Jack Dylan Grazer, who simply steals the show with his authentic quirkiness. While Djimon Hounsou and Mark Strong look as serious as required, Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans imbue their supporting roles with warm, gentle decency, and Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, and Faithe Herman bring considerable colorful life and personality to their respective supporting roles.
While “Shazam!” is not something as ground-breaking as “Wonder Woman” or “Captain Marvel” (2019), I like its spirited moments of unadulterated fun and excitement, and I will not deny that I chuckled as watching its funniest moments during my viewing. Sure, it could have been more refreshing if it had been released around 10 years ago, but it is still an enjoyable product distinctive enough to distinguish itself from many other superhero films out there, and I guess we can have some expectation on what may come next after this promising start.