SP Review: 'Shazam!' fills its fun with feels

Arts and culture reporter Brandon King gives "Shazam!" 9/10 stars

The image of a superhero can vary, but one thing is certain: Fans will wholeheartedly defend their favorites. There's one character who I love just as much as those upper-tier heroes like Batman and Spider-Man, and who never seems to get the proper respect: Shazam. 

Throughout the years, whether in comics or on television, something about Shazam always appealed to me. The idea that this good-hearted kid could gain the powers of the Greek gods with his words — literally the idea of words having power — was fascinating and opened the door for some weird, fun stories. 

So when Warner Bros. announced the character would be coming to the DC Extended Universe, joining films like "Wonder Woman" and "Aquaman," I was immediately excited. On top of that, the choices of Zachary Levi to portray the hero and a horror director like David F. Sandberg to direct brought some intrigue as well, and I couldn't wait to see the final product.

What's the end result? As a fan of the character, I couldn't be happier. But more importantly, as a film, "Shazam!" stands out by deconstructing our fascination with superheroes through healthy doses of heart and humor.

Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) is a foster child living in modern-day Philadelphia who lost his mother at a carnival when he was young and has since been running from one foster home to another. He winds up in the home of the Vasquez family, a caring group home where he befriends Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the foster children obsessed with superheroes.

One day, after Billy picks a fight with some boys who were bullying Freddy, he hides in the subway only to be transported to the Rock of Eternity, a cave in another dimension.

He encounters the Wizard Shazam (played by Djimon Hounsou), who tells the boy he has been seeking a soul who is pure of heart to inherit his magic for over a millennia and has now chosen Billy. The Wizard transfers his magic to Billy, which causes him to become an adult, super-powered version of himself (played by Levi). 

With Freddy's knowledge of superheroes, the two go about discovering Billy's new abilities, and initially use them for fun. Their excitement shifts with the reemergence of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (played by Mark Strong), whom the Wizard had rejected as a child and now holds the power of the Seven Deadly Sins. It's up to Billy to stop him from spreading the sins across the world and maybe even find a true family along the way.

"Shazam!" prides itself on being a superhero movie, and the combined performance of Angel and Levi give meaning to that sense of wonder and fun. Levi does a great job of being the titular hero, but if Angel doesn't give us a baseline to show that development, it doesn't work nearly as well.

Director Sandberg embraces that idea too, through a lot of great visual gags and bringing Henry Gayden's screenplay to life with a quick wit and pacing. Freddy trying to teach Billy about what superheroes do is hysterical, and there's a particular moment, which is foreshadowed in the trailer, that had me rolling in my seat with laughter. 

Where "Shazam!" really started to hook me was in the emotional impact. Plenty of moments in the film could feel hokey on paper, but most of them work in spades. Billy's relationship with his siblings allows us to feel his doubt and isolation about being thrown into a new family.

There's a scene involving Billy's birth mother that manages to anchor one of the film's main ideas, which is the theme that wants and desires can drive your motivation, but only take you so far beyond looking at your life and seeing there are people who care about you. That may feel too earnest for some, but to me, it hit exactly right. 

I liked Strong's portrayal of Dr. Sivana, and certain elements of the character worked for me, such as how he seems to take pleasure in channeling his loneliness and housing the Seven Deadly Sins within him. The result is still a "parallel to the hero" villain we've seen overused in recent years.

"Shazam!" is a love letter to superheroes that feels both exciting enough to watch and emotional enough to believe. I think I still prefer "Man of Steel" and "Wonder Woman" over this, but it's a welcome addition to an expanding universe, and I'm happy to give some love to the Big Red Cheese.

Overall, I give "Shazam!" 9/10 stars.

 Reach the reporter at brandon.D.King@asu.edu or follow @TheMovieKing45 on Twitter.

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