PLOT A boy discovers he can transform himself into a superhero by uttering a single word.
CAST Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
RATED PG-13 (some strong violence and disturbing imagery)
BOTTOM LINE A youthful and mostly playful treatment of one of DC’s cheesier superheroes.
Even by the standards of mid-1970s television, the CBS superhero series “Shazam!” was pretty hokey stuff. The story of Billy Batson, a teenager who can become a superhero by uttering a magic word, “Shazam!” suffered from low-impact action sequences and one corny-looking suit — a vaguely Greco-Roman combination of golden boots, white cape and red jumpsuit. The characters were barely even one-dimensional: The superhero, confusingly named Captain Marvel, was little more than a gleaming smile; his mentor, played by Les Tremayne, was named Mentor.
All of this makes “Shazam!,” the latest Warner Bros. adaptation of a DC Comics property, an unexpected choice to release in 2019. Where can this slice of American cheese fit in among the dark and snarky and sometimes even nasty superheroes of today?
What “Shazam!” has going for it is the youth and innocence of its hero. Billy, played by an engaging Asher Angel, is just 14, barely pubescent. A serial foster-home kid, he's taken in by the Vasquezes (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews, both wonderful), who oversee a warm little nest filled with multiethnic chicks, most notably bright-eyed Darla (Faithe Herman), galumphing Pedro (Jovan Armand) and brainy Eugene (Ian Chen, slightly stereotyped). Billy forms his strongest bond with Freddy, a wiseacre with a damaged leg played by a show-stealing Jack Dylan Grazer. We know, though Billy doesn't, that this will be his family.
Billy becomes a superhero in the darnedest way: A wizard (Djimon Honsou) simply summons him and names him the guardian — or “champion” — of the world. It's not the most compelling origin story, but the movie makes it work by playing up Billy's bafflement, especially when he finds that he has suddenly become a grown adult (Zachary Levi) wearing a rather gaudy-looking costume. Freddy, a superhero fan, helps Shazam (for that will apparently be his name) test out his new powers in a series of enjoyable, “Jackass”-style stunts involving power tools, fire and bullets. (The freewheeling direction is by David F. Sandberg; Henry Gayden wrote the kid-friendly script.)
“Shazam!” has some surprisingly dark moments involving its villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who was turned down by the wizard as a child and — understandably — has been fuming about it ever since. Sivana wreaks some very real havoc on people, slightly unbalancing the movie's otherwise light tone. Overall, though,“Shazam!” is a welcome antidote to the usual brooding DC fare, an upbeat superhero movie that feels young at heart.
The DC machine is going full-steam ahead, with a pipeline of perhaps 20 films — some slated for release, some still very much in development. Here are four titles coming our way:
JOKER (Oct. 4, 2019) With Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, expectations are high for this stand-alone origin story (it exists outside the DC Extended Universe). The director is Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”), but the recently released trailer suggests this will be no laughing matter.
BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) (Feb. 7, 2020) In the otherwise dopey “Suicide Squad,” Margot Robbie’s angry goth girl, Harley Quinn, was arguably the most entertaining character. Now she has her own movie, with two female creators: director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson.
WONDER WOMAN 1984 (June 5, 2020) Gal Godot returns in the title role (along with director Patty Jenkins) for a Cold War-era adventure. Chris Pine reportedly returns as Steve Trevor, but the most interesting casting is that of Kristen Wiig as a new foe, Cheetah.
THE BATMAN (June 25, 2021) As of press time, this film has a writer-director (Matt Reeves, of “War for the Planet of the Apes”), a thematic vision (noirish in tone, says Reeves) and a release date. Now, with Ben Affleck dropping out, all it needs is a star. — RAFER GUZMAN