The wrinkle that makes Shazam! different from other superheroes is that he’s literally a kid’s wish-fulfilment fantasy. Crusading reporters and millionaire playboys are as obviously enviable as their caped identities, but young Billy Batson (Angel) — originally a homeless orphan, to rub it in — is an underpowered kid like most of his original readers.
A cry of “Shazam!” invests Billy with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus (ie: lightning), the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. All in the body of a broad-chested lunk in a natty, white half-cape later copied by Elvis. Therefore, this revival of a hero whose last cinema outing was Adventures Of Captain Marvel in 1941 (before lawyers took away his name) is as much an entry in the kid-in-a-grown-up-body genre (Freaky Friday, Vice Versa, Big) as it is yet another addition to the currently crowded roster of superheroic spectacle. A lot of skeletons rattle around in the plot, which involves the last wishes of a cavern-dwelling wizard (Hounsou) and the seething envy of diabolical mastermind Dr Sivana (Strong), but the spine of Shazam! is Billy taking a Spidey-like power and responsibility crash course while learning to appreciate a family that has come together by choice rather than biological accident.
Zachary Levi incarnates every brat's idea of what a grown-up is like.
In the early stretches, as Billy bombs about Philadelphia searching for his missing mom while Sivana refines his self-made evil genius, Shazam! feels a little like an M. Night Shyamalan film with more bathroom jokes. Then lightning strikes and Zachary Levi takes over the lead, incarnating every brat’s idea of what a grown-up is like – though one of the wryest takes of the film is that Levi’s broad-chested, super-powered Billy (who never settles on a hero name) is free to act more like a kid than Asher’s driven, guarded teenage reading of the role. This being a film made by grown-ups in 2019, Billy’s heroic stunts — sometimes averting disasters he’s inadvertently caused — become famous thanks to social media which peaked in 2017, date-stamping the film the way Kick-Ass’ MySpace page did.
Since this is still part of the DCEU, dark shadows gather, with a couple of genuinely upsetting scenes — Billy and Sivana both have unhappy family reunions — and about ten minutes’ too much rote CGI thumping and destruction. However, director David F. Sandberg, of the smart little horror film Lights Out and the proficient but ordinary Annabelle: Creation, is more drawn to the whimsy, charm and comic potential of the material. Ironically, this feels more like a Disney movie — in their mild-mannered superheroics phase, represented by the Flubber and Herbie films — than any of the Marvel comic book films released by Disney, with a clutch of appealing foster siblings (Faithe Herman is a standout) set to team with Billy in pretty much inevitable future adventures.