Starring Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong
Directed by David F Sandberg
The best thing about Shazam is that despite this overgrown super dude having “Holy Moley” powers which could kick even Superman's butt, he's still a kid at heart. We are reminded of this comical retarded infancy since the fella in adult form (Zachary Levi from defunct TV series Chuck) looks like a cartoonish bodybuilder in a dopey red costume with muscles bulging like balloons.
For added klutzy laughs, the big lug has a goofy yellow lightning symbol glowing like a light bulb on his chest, making him look like his own walking promo sign. But even better is Shazam just keeps showing this wide-eyed, golly-gee-whiz sense of surprise at his own abilities throughout this entertainingly wholesome, juvenile-class, action-comedy powered by a winsome bunch of youngsters.
DC has beaten Marvel to this marvel — the kid-sized superhero movie actually made with real kids for an audience of kids to claim as their own. “How old are you?” asks the fully grown, fully bald and fully nasty villain here, Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong from Kingsman: The Secret Service), who wants to possess Shazam's powers. “Basically 15,” the 14-year-old adult Shazam exaggerates sheepishly.
Oh, you know how children are — they always lie about their age. Which brings us to the truth about Shazam!. The juniors are totally fun in the first part of this flick when it's all about the age — no pun intended — of discovery over Shazam's multiple powers after a boy meets a wizard and is magically transformed into a boy looking like a man acting as a man-child.
Because he's pure of heart, strong of spirit and a good kid who takes on bullies with the guts of a righteous underdog, Billy Batson (Asher Angel from the Disney TV series, Andi Mack), is selected by the original Shazam (Captain Marvel's Djimon Hounsou), an ancient wizard holed up in his dark other-dimensional cave-temple just waiting for a worthy new champ to pass his store of magical mojo to. We're talking the wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules; the stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus; the courage of Achilles; and the speed of Mercury — that sort of mystical stuff since the name “Shazam” itself is an amalgamation of the first letters of the names of famous Greek gods.
“Lay your hand on this staff,” the wizard tells the boy while holding up a magical big stick for the official transfer of powers, which is the only time an R-rated joke sneaks by in this PG-sanitised film. In fact, parental guidance is the key to this tale since both hero and villain have serious parental issues — the good guy misses his mother while the bad guy hates his father.
Billy, abandoned by his mum years earlier, is put in a foster home filled with politically diverse orphan kids — older white girl, little black girl, Asian nerd, fat Latino (aficionados of the Shazam comic books will know where this merry, motley bunch is heading to) — but he keeps running off to find his absent mother.
Meanwhile, Dr Sivana has long-time prime beef with his dad for the way nobody believed him when he met the wizard right at the start of the movie as a boy and blew his chance at becoming Shazam himself when he got tempted by the dark side.
Hey, you just never know what the heck fickle kids really want these days, right? One minute it's something from a sorcerer; next minute it's something else from a bunch of demons.
The standout unwanted child here, though, is Billy's rascally roommate and Shazam's scene-stealing sidekick, Freddy Freeman (It’s Jack Dylan Frazer), who walks with a limp but talks super-fast with a cheeky grin.
Freddy's head is so stuffed with superhero trivia he basically tags along with Shazam as the superhero's own personal fanboy. “Your face gives off a very strong vibe of somebody who's hatching schemes,” the Caped, sorry, Kid Crusader nails down his best pal's Artful Dodger persona.
As the principal mischief makers plotting minor mayhem here, both teens are terrific together. Thus making their antics in school, at home and out in the fun-filled streets —where they test out Shazam's powers, buy illegal beer and use his lightning bolts to charge handphones and zap ATMs into dishing out free money — the best segment of this flick.
You know, kinda like Diary of a Wimpy Kid turning into Diary of a Zappy Kid. Quite enjoyable.
Problem is when the movie goes into full-throttle Kiddie-vs-Baldie slugfest mode here —lots of flying, punching, crashing, smashing and shooting of electrical bolts — it turns inevitably meh. No matter how much CGI goes into those super battle scenes, we've seen them all before. Even when they send a giant Ferris wheel toppling at the amusement-park finale.
Two things raise Shazam! right into the kiddo-sphere though.
Firstly, it's pretty dope how Strong's villainous Dr Sivana summons up gargoyle-type monsters to do his dirty work, making you forgive him for dressing up uninspiringly like a bald-headed Gestapo agent with dark shades and a long trenchcoat.
Seriously, this Brit chap, floating about in the air like a demented Nazi fairy, would make a very good Psycho Bell at Disneyland.
Secondly and most cool for comic book fans, this film takes place in the same universe as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and their super friends. Which means that there are a lot of references to the Justice League, including a kindergarten-style fight at a department store stocked with Batman toys and a funny dig at Aquaman right at the end after the credits. In fact, pay attention to the closing credits themselves where the happy artwork shows you how the super juniors will hang out with their super seniors.
Man, it looks so fun it's enough to make a superhero wanna transform into a superhanger. (***1/2)
Photo: Warner Bros Pictures