The story behind “Shazam!” revolves around 14 year-old Billy Batson (solidly played by Asher Angel), a foster home runaway seeking his real mom. Separated in public, police threw Billy into social services before his mother could claim him. Knowing she’s out there, Billy uses his wits to gain illegal access to a police computer to track her but the plan backfires when police tail his lead and find Billy instead.
Thrown into another foster family with five kids already residing there, Billy bonds with one of them: Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a wisecrack who’s wise about the superheroes saving lives outside their Philadelphia home (in “Shazam’s” film world, DC heroes Superman and Batman really exist- Freddy’s got an authentic Superman stopped bullet to prove it). At school, when bullies harass Freddy, Billy comes to his rescue. Running to escape Freddy’s tormentors, Billy finds himself magically teleported to the Rock of Eternity, where an old Wizard in failing health (Djimon Hounsou) needs a “champion” to replace him. The Wizard, who has searched forever to find someone “pure of heart and strong in spirit” to take his place, sees Billy’s heroism defending Freddy as his last ditch answer. The Wizard, whose task is to guard against the Seven Deadly Sins from escaping back into the world, needs Billy to be his successor. By holding a glowing staff and repeating the Wizard’s name, a reluctant Billy is transformed by thunderbolt into the long sought-after champion: an adult-aged superhero dressed in white cape and red tights bearing an energy-filled, lightning bolt logo on his chest. The transformative word Billy says? Shazam.
The movie makes its mark by setting a likable tone for Billy- he’s bright and brave in the right circumstance for the right reasons. Because you’re behind Billy, you identify with his curiosity as he tentatively becomes Shazam (in the adult-acting form of Zachary Levi). Levi sells the role of Shazam by playing a 14 year-old at heart in an acting hybrid recalling Tom Hanks in “Big” with Michael Keaton’s arrogant ‘80’s flippancy- an amusing example comes when Shazam shoots lighting from his fingertips to charge strangers’ cell phones with the Oprahesque cry “You’re phone’s charged!”
For the comic’s fans, “Shazam” has all the superhero standards complete with an equally-matched villain in Dr. Silvana (Mark Strong) who, possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins, looks to destroy Shazam. But the film’s real joy lies in its premise: an adolescent boy finds himself in Superman’s body. Since the suit doesn’t come with instructions, director David F. Sandberg lets the audience have fun as Billy discovers his newly-acquired Shazam powers, whether it’s in a superpower trial testing montage set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” or in Billy using Shazam’s adult appearance to do what an adolescent boy might: cut school, buy beer or walk into a strip club.
Like Marvel Comics’ “Deadpool” without the crude humor, “Shazam” feels like the funny DC Comics counterpart. At a time when the adventures of comic book crusaders become overbearing CGI-laden opuses, it’s refreshing to remember a superhero’s simplicity. “Shazam” does just that. As a nice surprise resembling his heroic insignia, the movie’s a bolt from the blue.