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Family-friendly 'Shazam!' is fun movie with heart

Cary Ashby • Apr 10, 2019 at 11:00 AM

My guess is director David F. Sandberg pitched “Shazam!” to Warner Bros. something like this: It’s “Big” and “13 Going on 30” — except without the romance – in the world of superheroes.

The only pop culture reference I might add is a bit of the short-lived ABC TV series “The Greatest American Hero.” After all, Shazam (a buff and enthusiastic Zachary Levi) spends a good deal of the movie figuring out how to fly. For the most part, the entire hysterical concept works.

“Shazam!” (PG-13) is a fun movie with heart, one to which you can bring your family. There are plenty of laughs, but the yucks don’t start until troubled foster boy Billy Batson (Asher Angel) gets his powers from Shazam the wizard (a creepy Djimon Hounsou) and we see Billy astounded at being in the adult body of Levi’s Shazam.

The early part of the film drags, filling in the back story of why the adult Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (a very intimidating and slimy Mark Strong) has been obsessed all his life with researching experiences similar to his – being “abducted” by the wizard to see if they are worthy of being his champion.

Given the importance of Sivana’s and Billy’s stories, it’s no surprise that it takes about 20 minutes before “Shazam!” finds its footing, much less its momentum. The storyline that drives the film is Billy’s relationship with his roommate in his newest foster home, Freddy Freeman (an exuberant Jack Dylan Gazer).

Freddy is obsessed with superheroes; he has a collection of Superman and Batman memorabilia in his bedroom. It’s this very obsession and passion that helps Shazam explore the range of his powers and, in his words, ultimately become “the dope superhero I am today.”

The cinematic concept of Shazam – who never truly gets a name, one of the ongoing shticks in the movie – is similar to his characterization since 2011 and slightly before; this is a boy in a man’s body. Shazam really doesn’t start using the wisdom of Solomon (what the ‘S’ stands for in his name) until he figures how to defeat Sivana and the monsters embodying the Seven Deadly Sins.

Switching back and forth between scenes with Sivana and the monsters and the much more enjoyable ones with Shazam and Freddy means there is a bit of a problem with tone consistency.

Sivana’s quest for retribution is dark. That’s quite a contrast with Shazam, who uses his newfound ability to shoot lightning from his hands to entertain people on the streets of Philadelphia and randomly charge shoppers’ cell phones.

There are plenty of homages to other DC Comics movies. Freddy wears Aquaman, Batman and Superman T-shirts and carries a Superman backpack featuring a logo straight from the “Man of Steel” movie.

Starting with “Aquaman,” DC and Warner Bros. has done their best to distance themselves from a “Justice League”-style connected universe, so I was surprised Freddy has a Batarang movie replica in his bedroom. (A mild spoiler here: It does help Shazam and Freddy figure out how to defeat Sivana.)

A nerdy Easter egg is Shazam and Freddy’s description of the “lair” they want a real estate agent to find – basically Wayne Manor from “Batman: The Animated Series” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.

As I waited at the Cinemark Stadium in Sandusky theater Saturday for the second post-credits scene, I was tickled to hear a young, elementary school-age girl gleefully shout the magical word that turns Billy Batson into the wizard’s champion: “Shazam!” Then she threw her fist in the air, as if ready to fly.

That’s what DC and Marvel should be doing with their comic books, animated series and movies: Inspiring children to be the heroes they’ve just read about or seen onscreen. If you believe you can fly – or that you want to take to the sky – then DC and Warner Bros. have accomplished a wonderful feat with “Shazam!.” All it takes is saying just one word.

Grade: B

Follow Reflector staff writer Cary Ashby on Facebook at “Cary Ashby — reporter & comic book blogger” and on Twitter at @Cary_reporter. He shares his views, reviews, previews and interviews about the superhero industry on his Cary’s Comics Craze blog, caryscomicscraze.blogspot.com. CCC ran as a twice-monthly column in the Reflector for nearly 10 years.

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