Shazam! is an overeager dad asking “Aren’t we having fun, kids?!” the whole drive to an admittedly pretty decent waterpark. It is basically one Rick Moranis away from perfectly aping a 1990s-era mainstream blockbuster family comedy, so either shrink or blow up your expectations accordingly. Director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden swap abundant enthusiasm for absent sincerity and confuse making a superhero movie for kids with one that could have been made by them. From its titular exclamation point to its groaner second credit cookie, Shazam! is somewhere beyond acceptable but short of transcendent, making it the best DC movie in half a decade or more.
Ironically for us nerds who get the connection, Shazam! has Captain Marvel’s problem and starts in the wrong spot and then restarts about four more times. We’re first introduced to the last remaining wizard, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who seeks a true-hearted champion with which to endow powers that will keep the seven deadly sins contained. Well, more contained, we’ve all seen Twitter. In 1974, Shazam tests a young boy for purity, a sentence the Catholic Church has definitely ruined. He is found wanting, so he grows up to be a huge dick named Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).
The most dangerous Thad in existence seeks and finds a gateway to Shazam’s world and gets a magic eyeball in which all the deadly sins live, giving him powers. Out of options, Shazam somewhat randomly wills his mojo to Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old foster kid who keeps running away to look for the mom who abandoned him. Now, whenever Billy yells the wizard’s name, he’s turned into a cape-wearing, lighting-blasting, superstrong fella (Zachary Levi). With his foster bro, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy tests the limits of his powers and eventually squares up with his nemesis before he is decapitated in a grisly, chilling final death sequence. Kidding! DC finally got a hug, so everything isn’t all Martha and morbid anymore.
The last hour of this overlong origin story is pretty darn great. Some of the best heroes-in-flight set-pieces are combined with a clever, cheeky energy that the rest of the film so badly wants to have but doesn’t. The big problem is that Levi’s delivery makes absolutely no sense. He’s trying to act like a 14-year-old in the body of an all-powerful God, but he comes across like a Forrest Gump who can crap lightning. Not that anyone is encouraging actors to spend more time with teenagers, but Levi’s impression of a young person feels very “How do you do, fellow kids?”
Flaws and faux exuberance aside, Shazam! is so determined to entertain families that it’s like Chuck E. Cheese who will not take no for an answer. It’s impossible not to giggle and grin frequently during that last battle, when Levi finally, finally, finally shuts up. More so than Ant-Man or its sequel, Shazam! is as close to true all-ages entertainment as live-action comic fare has fared. And, to be fair, that’s a fair-enough goal well-achieved.
Grade = B