'Shazam!' Review: Hilarity And Heart Make This Throwback Superhero Movie A Breath Of Fresh Air

There's a moment for every superhero movie fan where something clicks. Whether it's when we pick up a comic book, flip to a superhero TV show, or watch a superhero movie for the first time, it's the magic of experiencing something greater, weirder, and just generally more than us. The entirety of Shazam! is like that magical moment.

A raucous, charming kid adventure that is a delight to behold from start to finish, Shazam! feels like a throwback both to '80s comedies and to the superhero movies of the early 2000s, with abundant callbacks to both genres. But rather than playing like an appeal to nostalgia, Shazam! is more of a spiritual throwback that captures the sincerity and silliness inherent in the superhero genre, while delivering a heartfelt story about the power of found families.

Shazam! opens with a young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) who, in the midst of an argument with his cruel brother and father, is summoned by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to become his new champion, but fails the test to prove that he is pure of heart. Resentful at losing out his chance to become an all-powerful being, Sivana (now played by Mark Strong) dedicates his life to finding Shazam's enchanted realm and claiming the power for himself. Several decades later, he steals a magic-seeing eye from Shazam and lets loose the Seven Deadly Sins, monstrous supernatural beasts hellbent on destroying the Earth. Desperate to find his champion to defeat the Seven Deadly Sins, Shazam plucks Billy Batson (Asher Angel) out of obscurity — and out of a chase in which he's fleeing school bullies — to bestow his powers upon him. Suddenly transformed into an adult superhero with powers of the super strength and electricity, Billy does what every kid would do in his situation: have a blast.

This was a role Zachary Levi was born to play, so utterly convincing is he as a 14-year-old boy stuck in an adult superhero's body that it makes you wonder if magic really does exist. Panicked and confused at first by his new situation, he fumbles with his "stupid adult hands" and clumsily lumbers around as if not fully in control of his motor functions. After his transformation into Shazam, Billy rushes to his new foster brother Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a self-declared superhero expert, who excitedly tests out Billy's newfound abilities and decides to craft a superhero persona that will make both of them the coolest kids in school. Dylan Grazer is the real heart of this movie, displaying remarkable complexity as the equal turns acerbic and vulnerable Freddie. The emotional beats of the film wouldn't work quite as well if Dylan Grazer didn't have such amazing chemistry with Levi and Angel both.

As the 14-year-old Billy, Angel is the final, and arguably most important, part of this starring trifecta. We spend a good 20 minutes of the film getting to know the prickly, hotheaded Billy who has run from foster homes all his life after getting accidentally separated from his mom at a carnival. Self-possessed and selfish, Angel is excellent as the precocious Billy, whose gruff posturing fails to hide the insecure child he actually is. It's only when he becomes an adult that Billy can finally become a kid again — getting into schoolyard antics with Freddie and slowly bonding with the other foster kids (all of whom, especially Faithe Herman's adorable Darla Dudley, are immensely charming and provide the emotional backbone for the movie). But despite the apparent difference in attitude between Billy and Shazam, they're inarguably the same person with the same self-centered flaws, which drives the most compelling part of the movie's conflict.

The pleasant surprise about Shazam! is that it's barely a superhero origin movie. It's more like a kid adventure, with Billy and Freddie using Shazam's powers to gain fame and skip school, and occasionally accidentally wreaking havoc. For some it may feel like the film is spinning its wheels until we get to that big Superhero Moment when Billy finally accepts the mantle, but Shazam! possesses such a joie de vivre that it's hard not to smile ear-to-ear when Billy and Freddie try to buy beer or sneak out of school. It's the first superhero movie since perhaps Sam Raimi's Spider-Man — to which Shazam owes a lot of its visual and thematic language — to show a character truly enjoying being a superhero.

It's fascinating that 17 years after Raimi's Spider-ManShazam! feels like both its natural successor and its evolved form. By virtue of taking place in a universe where superheroes have already ascended to mythic figures, Shazam! is the first post-modern superhero movie that doesn't exist in its own satirical dimension without feeling like a franchising opportunity. There are countless winking comedic references to Batman and Superman, but because of Shazam's untainted sincerity, they never come across as smug. Shazam! takes place in the greater DC Extended Universe but in a corner unto its own, allowing its characters — Freddie especially — to genuinely marvel at the existence of superheroes.

It's when Shazam! has to return to building that superhero origin story that the momentum begins to drag. The film has some pacing issues, struggling a little between paying its dues to Shazam's origin and his impending battle with Sivana and just letting kids be kids. Strong does his best with a fairly substandard villain, scowling and looking fairly imposing, as well as delivering us one of the scariest parts of the film. (Child endangerment is no joke!) But Sivana, despite the film's attempts to create a sympathetic villain, is one of the weakest parts of the film.

With the glut of superhero movies taking over the movie landscape these days, it's easy to forget about the reason that we fell in love with the genre in the first place. The formula has become too rigid, the fight scenes too unexciting, or the twists too predictable. But magic and the ability of superheroes to make us drop our jaws in awe still exists. It turns out that it takes a kid turning into a superpowered Zachary Levi to remind us of that.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10