Sure, it's a comic book origin story, hot on the heels of one comic book origin story released four weekends ago and just ahead of another comic book origin story coming next weekend. But Shazam! is fun and funny, anchored by a charismatic actor who brings some childlike joy to a genre that seems unlikely to wear out its welcome anytime soon.
After a brief prelude in which The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) tries, and fails, to find a champion worthy of receiving his magical powers, we meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel). He's a tough, streetwise kid, one who's trying to track down his birth mother after years in the foster care system. Picked up by the cops, Billy is sent to live with yet another foster family, this one headed by Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans). Billy bunks with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), fast-talking but disabled, and obsessed with superheroes: He has a replica of a Batarang, an authentic slug stopped by the Man of Steel's chest, and a bevy of questions about which superpower you'd want if you were a metahuman.
After Billy proves his worth by saving Freddy from some bullies that seem to have transported through time from a 1980s teen comedy, The Wizard Shazam whisks him away to test his worth—and, as you have seen in the trailers and the commercials and every other piece of marketing, Billy succeeds, becoming the white-caped, red-suited hero, Shazam (Zachary Levi). By saying the magic word (Shazam), Billy switches back and forth between identities, a bolt of lightning serving as the proverbial phone booth. That quick change comes in handy when he squares off against Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a villain empowered by literal manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins.
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The most interesting character in the film, to my mind, is not Billy nor Shazam nor Sivana, but Freddy. It is through him and his obsessions that we see what it would be like to live in a world of super-powered, godlike beings. It's Freddy who comes up with a series of tests to determine what, exactly, Shazam’s powers are. It's Freddy who is inspired by the capes and the masks to try and make something more of himself. And it's Freddy whose disappointment in Billy causes the wayward boy to reconsider the gift he’s been given.
I've noted before that the Zack Snyder-overseen DC films were, at heart, an examination of the ways in which the world would change if gods were proven to be real. Freddy is a ground-eye view of this idea, a child whose world was shaped in horrible and wonderful ways. Shazam! is connected to the broader DCEU in minor concrete ways—the aforementioned Batarang and crushed bullet; toys in department stores celebrating the vigilantes* in their midst—but the ideas that animate the film are very much in line with the ideas that animated previous entries in the series. This thematic unity is more pleasing than any cameos or post-credits stingers could be.
Levi is fantastic as Captain Marvel (though I don’t believe he's ever referred to as such in the film, instead having jokey names like Captain Sparklefingers foisted upon him; one wonders if another universe's interloper threw up a legal roadblock). It's about time we had a movie in which a marvelous captain was portrayed by someone able to express an emotional range beyond smug self-satisfaction. Mark Strong's villain is mediocre, as far as these things go; it still feels weird that no one has quite figured out what to do with Strong in this type of role, given how good he is in films like Kingsman, Zero Dark Thirty, and RocknRolla. There's something about his intensity that just doesn't translate to these big, comic book roles (see also: Green Lantern).
*That's right: Murder Batman has his own line of toys in this universe, suggesting there’s less handwringing about The Bat Man’s justifiable homicide of various ne’er-do-wells in that world than our own. No word if toy Batmobiles come with Nerf chain guns.