Friday, April 5, 2019

Big Strapping Hero: "Shazam!" a zippy, exuberant, heart-filled delight

Shazam! (2019)
132 min.
Release Date: April 5, 2019 (Wide)

Mirthfully divergent from the dark and brooding stuff that superhero features tend to be, “Shazam!” is pure joy. Based on C.C. Beck and Bill Parker's character, who was published first by Fawcett Comics before being sold to DC Comics and (this is where the rights issues get confusing) originally went by moniker "Captain Marvel," the film playfully mines the gee-whiz giddiness of a 14-year-old boy transforming into his adult-sized alter ego, a costumed superhero, whenever saying the magic word ("Shazam!," an acronym for the first letters of gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercy). Now, Shazam (or Thundercrack, Red Cyclone, or Captain Sparklefingers) receives his first feature film, and it is a lot of F-U-N! Written by Henry Gayden (2014's "Earth to Echo") and directed by David F. Sandberg (2017’s “Annabelle: Creation”), "Shazam!" effortlessly finds a sweetly silly buoyancy, but also genuine stakes and danger, that's still more in step with a fantastical body-swap comedy than a cinematic universe table-setter.

14-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has fled foster homes in six counties and keeps searching for his birth mother after he was lost in a carnival crowd as a child. After another run-in with the cops in Philadelphia, he gets taken in to a family group home by a new set of foster parents, Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews), and four other foster kids, who are all wonderful, but Billy still keeps his eye on the exit. One of the kids, physically disabled wiseacre Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), particularly takes a liking to Billy, as does precocious little Darla (Faithe Herman), who’s always wanted another big brother. Once Billy’s noble act standing up for Freddy to a couple of school bullies, the teen escapes to the subway and gets transported to the Rock of Eternity, a magical temple in another dimension, by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who has been looking for a worthy soul pure of heart and strong in spirit. Though he thinks the bearded old man is kidding, Billy takes command of Shazam’s powers and gets turned into the body of a strapping, spandex-suited thirtysomething man (Zachary Levi). Meanwhile, physicist Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who was summoned by wizard Shazam as a child but not chosen as the champion and thus tempted by a powerful orb, has nefarious plans to unleash the Seven Deadly Sins. Billy is still just getting used to his powers, which include lightning hands, super strength, the ability to fly, hyper-speed and bullet immunity, but he will have to learn his full potential if he wants to rid the world of evil and keep those closest to him safe.

Frisky and sweet-natured, “Shazam!” owes a debt to 1988’s “Big” and knows it (a brief wink to the Tom Hanks classic is perfectly timed). From saving a young woman who’s being mugged to stopping a stick-up at a convenience store and a montage set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the film is at its absolute best when Billy discovers his powers with Freddy by his side, and the tentative superhero monikers Freddy spitballs for his buddy are even funnier than the last. With discovery of great power bringing great responsibility, to paraphrase Uncle Ben, the film follows Billy in his journey to learn that being a superhero isn’t just about photo opportunities and giving autographs, and the lesson feels affectingly earned without striking as stale or saccharine. As director David F. Sandberg has previously showcased in his credits steeped in the horror genre, he confidently handles the film’s creepier, grimmer elements, too, such as an intense confrontation where Sivana sics his gargoyle-like Sins on his brother, father, and company associates in a conference room. And, while it sounds like a pretty facile observation, Sandberg infuses so much vibrant color into each frame, heightening his grounded reality with a comic-book kick.

Asher Angel (TV’s “Andi Mack”) has a rebellious edge and likability as “Holy Moly”-spouting troublemaker Billy, but watching what Zachary Levi (2017's "Thor: Ragnarok") does to replicate Angel’s performance is the entire show. Convincingly playing a 14-year-old in an adult man’s body in terms of attitude and body language, Levi brings such a boyish exuberance and effortless charisma as Billy's grown-up, super-powered counterpart. Jack Dylan Grazer (2017’s “It”) is a standout, yet again, delivering wonderful laugh lines and solidifying a charming friendship with Billy as the Superman-obsessed Freddy, and the adorable, endearing Faithe Herman (TV’s “This Is Us”) steals her scenes as the talkative Darla. No stranger to playing the heavy in a film, Mark Strong makes Dr. Thaddeus Sivana a memorable supervillain who’s not only threatening but lost his goodness to evil as a child when he was sick of being told he was never good enough; the attention-grabbing opener lays the groundwork as underestimated young Thad (Ethan Pugiotto) had his entire life changed one night while on the road with his father and older brother around Christmastime, summoned by Shazam but deemed unworthy.

For a 132-minute film, “Shazam!” is zippy in pace and never feels north of 90 minutes, and yet very few moments feel rushed. The appealing characters are what matter here, and yet there is plenty of spectacle and numerous crowd-pleasing moments, including a lively, inventive climax set at a winter carnival that delights in multiple character moments and a bit that takes the piss out of superhero tropes where Sivana delivers his villainous plan to Billy. There’s also a welcome reminiscence of “The Goonies,” as Billy gets a little help from his foster siblings, who all get to shine and make up a lovable familial unit. Consistently fun to watch and not without a heart, “Shazam!” is the kind of superior, eager-to-please superhero entertainment that puts a good amount of pep in the viewer’s step. Like Billy, it is pure of heart and strong in spirit.

Grade: B +

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