With ‘Shazam!,’ DC lightens up a little
Magically empowered teenager Billy Batson gets into some eyebrow-raising mischief in DC’s superhero-lite adventure “Shazam!,” even if he’s generally a kid with a good heart. He pranks the police, he makes underage packy runs, he keeps running away, period.
The filmmakers get up to some shenanigans, too. The movie brazenly cribs from “Big” and the screen-ager feel of Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” — slyly copping to the former, at least — and indulges in the odd tonal snippet slightly edgier than its prevailing vibe would have us anticipate. But amid the unattributed riffing, the pinballing among YA-style quaintness, perv jokes, and graphic jolts, you start to realize: “Shazam!” is pretty entertaining. It’s a lark that aims to distinguish itself from too-familiar DC dourness a bit like “Guardians of the Galaxy” playfully tweaked Marvel’s formula.
Director David F. Sandberg (“Annabelle: Creation”) does efficient work covering our hero’s improbable beginnings, casting Billy (Disney Channel trouper Asher Angel) as a sympathetically feisty social-services case summoned by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and granted abilities of legend. Make that legends, plural: When Billy morphs into his fully grown alter ego (Zachary Levi, swaggering as cartoonishly as in “Tangled”), he’s a red-tighted amalgam of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, and, well, you get the acronym-forming idea. (Those who’ve snickered about the ridiculousness of Levi’s lightning-emblazoned getup are sort of missing the point.)
The fanboy-labyrinthine origin that the filmmakers can’t cover is the hero’s print introduction as Captain Marvel back in the 1930s, before there even was a Marvel Comics, never mind Brie Larson’s blockbusting fly gal. Long backstory short, the ’70s kid-TV series “Shazam” cemented this as the revived character’s handle for mainstreamers. But the movie does offer a nod to the intellectual-property muddle, as Levi’s superdude tries on “Thundercrack” and other iffy alternatives in one of various creatively freewheeling script touches.
Billy’s supportive new foster family (most notably Jack Dylan Grazer of “It” as his physically challenged, amusingly sardonic bunkmate) is perhaps the best import from recent comics. Pals and sidekicks are a venerable part of Shazam mythology, an old-fashioned staple recognized here in a way that’s earnest and yet contemporary. Billy’s continuing search for his long-lost mom makes for some effective drama, too.
Meanwhile, Mark Strong’s familiar clipped menace lends relevance to resident archvillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, an embittered onetime reject of Hounsou’s mage who’s now busy siccing anthropomorphized cardinal sins on the world. (We’ll assume Strong must’ve gotten over his similar involvement with Ryan Reynolds’s “Green Lantern” debacle.)
If anything, he’s a nemesis who’s a tad vicious at points, as though he missed the memo about DC’s lighter touch with this one. Happily, Levi and Angel’s winningly flawed, semi-camp crusader didn’t miss it, even if it’s buried somewhere in the kid’s backpack.
Directed by David F. Sandberg. Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke. Starring Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 132 minutes. PG-13 (intense action sequences, language, suggestive material).