‘Shazam!’: Humor in Superhero Growing Pains ☆☆☆☆

“Shazam!” isn’t so much a name as a catchy acronym for a superhero (once known as Captain Marvel before legal difficulties  nixed that nom de guerre) who has the “wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.” For reasons that will become clear below, our hero can’t be called “Shazam,” but there are plenty of mirthful suggestions in this movie that has the spirit of Tom Hanks’ “Big” mixed in this magical mainstream superhero concoction but more heart than one traditionally associates with comic book-inspired movies.

Some of the older audience members (or those particularly attuned to comics on television) will remember a live-action (1974)  or an animated series with actors singing (1981).

The movie begins with a young boy being transported out of his father’s car and into a cave in a different realm where the Seven Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy and Pride) are imprisoned in stone by the magical powers of the last remaining wizard, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), of what was once a council of seven (Council of Eternity). Shazam has been looking for someone strong and “pure of heart,” but ultimately fails until, in an act of desperation, he chooses a frequently fleer foster kid named 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) living in Philly.

Batson isn’t a goody-two-shoes. Since he wandered away from his mother at a carnival chasing a compass that his mother won for him, he’s been searching for her, looking up every Batson in the city but to do so, he’s had to run away from foster homes and commit some petty crimes. The last Batson on his book turns out to not be his mom for obvious reasons and he ends up in police custody and in a new group home.

The group home is headed by Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans) who have a colorful, lived in house that is already home to five other kids: the college-bound oldest, Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton); the tech-savvy geek, Eugene Choi (Ian Chen); the shy, overweight Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand); the overly demonstrative and every cheerful Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman); and the differently able, but superhero walking encyclopedia, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).

Freddy is first to know about Batson’s Shazam-ness, and helps Billy explore his potential superpowers, videotaping and posting their tests. Philly already has a resident superhero, Rocky Balboa, and the movie is quick to make that reference. There will also be mention of heroes in the DC universe (e.g Batman and Aquaman). From Batman, the two buddies know they need a “lair” and the search doesn’t go well.

Darla is the second sibling in the know and keeps her mouth shut, even when Billy gets too big for his britches. He’s not sold on the power of love and family, motivated by money and shows himself striving to be the top rat in the rat race without any redeeming qualities say of Mighty or Mickey Mouse. Freddy has his enlarged ego moments, too. Obviously both guys need to have their egos deflated and there are always bullies around willing to do just that.

How could the Wizard Shazam have been so wrong? That old wizard rejected so many before Billy Batson and these people now are being contacted–thanks to the power of the Internet, social media and electronic telecommunications. The research into the phenomena labels it “mass hysteria,” but we know that magic exists and, as this is DC, we know that bad magic must rise to get our hero Billy Batson transform his alter ego into a hero.

The baddie facing Billy Batson is an adult inventor–confident, arrogant and angry with the hot fire of envy–Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). Sivana frees the Seven Sins which are realized as wondrous, smoky CGI that solidifies into hard-bodied horrors. Billy is still a kid when he transforms into a muscle-bound white-caped red-suited dude with a flashy lightning chest logo (Zachary Levi), but Sivana is an adult who has spent a long time contemplating what he wants.

Levi channels the goofiness we saw in his Nerd Herd first few seasons of “Chuck,” as he learns climbs the rope to hero hood as a spy and agent operant.  In “Shazam!” there’s no love interest but there is a moment of heartbreak before Billy Batson reaches his version of hero-hood. Compared to Tom Hanks’ young-boy-in-an-adult-body in “Big” (and there will be a “Big” moment), Levi projects a more jaded wise-guy wanna-be attitude, reflecting both separation anxiety and a childhood impoverished by bonding issues.

The Spoiler Alert is in the credits–Mary Bromfield will become Mary Marvel (Michelle North), Freddy Freeman is Captain Marvel Jr. (Adam Brody), Eugene Choi becomes super Eugene (Ross Butler), Jovan Armand’s Pedro becomes D.J. Cotrona and Darla goes from Faithe Herman to Meagan Good.  Sidekick diversity continues to grow.

Be sure to stay for not one, but two post ending scenes during the credits and pay attention to that Alice-in-Wonderland moment during the different dimension cave scene. It will come back to haunt the white-caped heroes of “Shazam!”

There are some weird casting issues and crossovers. Levi was Fandral (one of the Warriors Three, a trio of Asgardians who offer comic relief and side stories) in “Thor: The Dark World” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Levi replaced Josh Dallas (“Thor”). And while one doesn’t expect a DC-Marvel-verses crossover, the Wizard Shazam is played by the same guy who as the King of the Fishermen (Ricou) in the recent “Aquaman.”

“Thor” is about one of the most dysfunctional families in the universe but “Shazam!” has a more positive spin on the emotional bonds formed by fate and found families. Take your kids, take your friends and have fantastic fun laughing at this foible-filled superhero origins story.

“Shazam!” opens on Thursday, 4 April 2019.

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