Shazam!, based on the DC Comics hero originally called Captain Marvel and originally not published by DC Comics, stars Zachary Levi, who once appeared in a Thor movie for Marvel Studios. Levi plays the hero; the bad guy is played by Mark Strong, who also played a supporting role (and unrealized future bad guy) in Green Lantern, based on the DC Comics hero, but unconnected to the current DC Comics movies. Shazam! also co-stars Djimon Hounsou, who also has a supporting role in Captain Marvel, currently in theaters, a separate character from Shazam, the former Captain Marvel, and based in part on the Marvel Comics hero originally called Ms. Marvel.
Shazam! is about a teenager learning to wield his superpowers responsibly, like Marvel’s Spider-Man; it’s also concerns the effects of those superpowers on family dynamics—sort of like The Incredibles, a Disney film which is not based on a comic book, but owes a lot to the Fantastic Four, whose movie rights were recently welcomed back into the Disney fold when Disney completed its purchase of 20th Century Fox’s film division. The end credits of Shazam! feature charmingly scrawled drawings of the main character’s superheroic antics, followed by a post-credits scene goofing on another superhero, both elements that recall Deadpool, an offshoot of the X-Men series, which was also recently absorbed back into Disney via Fox. Disney, of course, owns Marvel, and Captain Marvel, but not Shazam!, which belongs to Warner Bros., which owns DC, which bought the character from Fawcett, the company that originally published stories about Shazam, back when he was called Captain Marvel.
These are all origins-of-origins and trivial connections, but they mirror the way that Shazam! itself is both convoluted and deeply familiar. The movie shows all the signs of fast-casual superhero bloat: It features one of those Marvel Studios-style extended prologues that functions as a miniature origin story for a villain who turns out not to be a very interesting person, and it also features the kind of powers-experimenting montage that has been a staple of these movies since Superman in 1978, and the climax goes on for a solid 10 minutes longer than it needs to, offering some of the one-upmanship a super-sized climactic battle demands, but not quite enough to justify pushing the whole thing past the two-hour mark. These are all handicaps of sorts—anti-superpowers, by most reasonable measures. But they’re also a weird testament to the strengths of Shazam!, the strengths that aren’t just like the ones boasted by Superman, who one character in the movie idolizes. This movie is a stew of secondhand powers, middling special effects, horror, and sentiment… and it is charming. It must, at times, be super-charming, to cut through all of its nonsense, of varieties both overfamiliar (a mid-credits sequel-teasing scene!) and semi-inexplicable (…that features some kind of tiny devil-worm!).
Boiled down, the premise is on the nuttier side of recent comics movies: Billy Batson (Asher Angel; rarely does an actor boast a comic-bookier name than his comic-book character) is a fourteen-year-old scrapper, an expert at slipping out of foster homes in the middle of the night, who has arrived at a last-chance group home run by a kindly couple, and overrun by a bunch of surrogate siblings. Billy rolls his eyes at his disable bunkmate Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero enthusiast, but still defends him when bullies knock him around, which is how he’s hastily selected by a wizard (Hounsou) to assume the ancient powers of Shazam, which zap over to him when he says the magic word (that word, again, is “Shazam!” although it would be a kick if they made it “Captain Marvel!”). The big zap gives him the physique of, well, an adult Zachary Levi in superhero padding, and a power set that resembles Superman—give or take a few more niche abilities. (Call it the Superman Starter Kit.)
Billy spends a lot of the movie in that fun powers-discovery phase, but eventually has to figure out how to fight the bad guy (Strong), who has his own, monster-y set of abilities, and wants the power of Shazam! for himself, et cetera, et cetera. The fun of the movie is mostly in the de facto body-switching comedy of Billy toggling between his teenage and adult forms. There are shades of Big, especially in the way that the “real” Billy Batson is a teenager but the adult-bodied version comes across more like a 10-year-old. At first I thought this was a slight miscalculation in Levi’s performance, but Freddy calls it out: Billy gets a lot looser and friendlier when he first gets his powers, as if they allow him to embrace the inner child lurking beneath the hardened foster-kid exterior, even though he looks more like a real grown-up. Of course, he still has to learn lessons about power, responsibility, family, and so on—to start to grow up and into his heroic image.
The movie’s resemblances to Big become a source of uncommon, maybe unearned gratitude, much in the way that almost any superhero movie that doesn’t aim for the flattest of boilerplate winds up earning ample extra credit just for trying—sometimes just for mentioning non-superhero movies in their promotional materials. Shazam! resembles Big a bit more than, say, Ant Man and the Wasp resembles Midnight Run or Captain Marvel resembles Robocop or Infinity War resembles a “90s heist movie” (whatever that is)—so bonus points for some truth in advertising, I guess. Director David F. Sandberg doesn’t shoot much of this more stylishly or inventively than the average Marvel hired hand, and let Shazam! or Superman or whoever strike me down if I ever say that he brings a whole lotta heart or whatever the fuck to the proceedings just because he corrals some cute kids and doesn’t focus exclusively on swirling garbage fights. But credit due: The scenes between Billy and Freddy have an energy that doesn’t feel entirely canned, and the sweet unruliness of the foster family is genuinely endearing. It’s not exactly a gritty sense of place, but there’s a little more character to this particular version of 2010s superhero-movie drabness; it takes place in Philadelphia in winter (around Christmas, in fact, for extra Shane Blackiness), and if the movie looks too washed out to be called atmospheric, it at least feels like it’s taking place somewhere where real people live.
In fact, Shazam! takes place in the same world as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, among others. Batman and Superman do not exactly appear in it, though they are both mentioned repeatedly, by Freddy and others. Those early Zack Snyder-driven attempts at forging an epic, interconnected DC Universe made such a vivid (if mostly negative) impression that mostly-unrelated DC movies are still defining themselves in large part by standing apart from Snyder’s aesthetic, and in this particular case retconning the world’s whole relationship with Batman and Superman. Shazam! represents an ongoing sea change in how the DC movies process masculinity; on his least nihilistic days, Snyder seems to interpret it (at least on the superpowered level) as a sort of weary, alienated stoicism. Shazam! imagines a world where superhero masculinity—living up to the ideals of Superman—involves some wide-eyed joy alongside all of that power, responsibility, etc. This is a progression even from Aquaman’s gentler, more welcoming ideas about Superhero Extreme, where the lead hero’s masculine bona fides did not inhibit the movie from implying that he was kind of a good-natured dumbass.
Shazam! is not as good as the fantastical much-ness of Aquaman, and it’s certainly not as good as the genuinely moving Wonder Woman, which better reckons with the DC characters’ godlike powers than anything else in this cycle of heroes. But in terms of superhero movies trying to be the funny one in the family, Shazam! at least sounds less like its laugh lines have been pasted in and punched up than the weaker Marvel pictures. Sandberg’s affinity for horror imagery gives it some authentic comic-book kick, even when the mythology starts to overflow. Levi and Angel give a nicely collaborative performance. It’s pretty good. It’s fun.
Is it refreshing? More than disposable? A suitable bookend for the long month in between movies starring characters currently or once called Captain Marvel? That probably depends on your tolerance for adolescence, on several levels. Speaking of which: Another superhero movie, featuring about three-quarters of the big-screen superheroes of the past decade, including Captain Marvel, not to be confused with Shazam or his Shazam family, originally known as his Marvel Family, who in turn are not to be confused with the Fantastic Four, who are First Family of Marvel, opens in three weeks.