What kid wouldn’t want to be a superhero? That’s the basic hook to “Shazam!,” certainly the most broadly comic entry to hit the DC Universe – essentially rebooting “Big,” just with tights, a cape and that oft-repeated title.
In a way, its closest cousin tonally in the superhero space would be “Deadpool,” with a dollop of “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” While “Shazam!” doesn’t indulge in sex or R-rated violence, it does mix exaggerated sight gags in with harder-edged action, making this a border-line entry for younger kids (parents, be forewarned), despite its colorful trappings and adorable kids.
As for “Big,” the movie actually overtly leans into the comparison, at one point having the hero encounter over-sized piano keys in a toy store – seemingly director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden’s way of anticipating those observations.
For anyone unfamiliar with this other Captain Marvel – the one introduced in 1939, which was later acquired by DC and gave birth to a highly forgettable live-action 1970s Saturday-morning TV show – don’t expect to hear that name. In fact, one of the better recurring gag involves trying to decide what to call the nameless hero unleashed when 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) says you know what.
The dense origin story involves Billy acquiring his powers from the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who must find a champion to fight off an intricately introduced bad guy, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (well-traveled villain Mark Strong). After years of searching, Sivana has located the same magical realm and absconded with the Seven Deadly Sins, a pretty gruesome assortment of creatures.
A foster kid obsessed with finding his long-lost mom, Billy revels in discovering and testing his powers, with considerable help from new foster brother Freddy (“It’s” Jack Dylan Grazer, very nearly stealing the show), who is conveniently well-versed in everything there is to know about superheroes in this DC-adjacent neighborhood.
Zachary Levi, meanwhile, plays the heavily muscled hero, mimicking Tom Hanks’ man-child shtick, only with a lot more special effects and a bulked-up physique. The boys’ relationship and the comedic aspects of, say, mastering flight, or just being old enough to buy beer, provide the movie’s backbone.
The filmmakers unearth some crowd-pleasing twists – especially during the climactic act – before it’s over. Even the setting, Philadelphia, becomes a basis for why humor and an excuse to dredge up “Rocky” references in keeping with Billy’s underdog story, although filming actually took place in Toronto.
It’s not unusual for superhero movies to feel like they’re serving multiple masters, but “Shazam!” juggles more than most – offering knowing winks at an audience well-versed in comic-book lore (Fawcett, the original publisher of Captain Marvel, even receives a sly acknowledgement), delivering action and still having young Billy learn Disney Channel-style lessons about family through his confusing adventure.
To be fair, the original Captain Marvel was always a pallid Superman clone – the basis for a lawsuit by Superman’s parent company – other than deriving his powers from the gods, with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, etc., adding up to his summoning call. He’s thus a ripe conduit for stretching the DC template.
Truth be told, though, one wishes the movie had a little more heft to it. It’s fine, even welcome, to see a superhero exult in his abilities, and on that level, “Shazam!” is generally fun. Even so, that lightning symbol notwithstanding, the film only occasionally conjures the spark of magic that gives the title its meaning.
“Shazam!” opens April 5 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13. Like CNN, New Line Cinema and DC Entertainment are units of WarnerMedia.