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Leaving behind the days of darkened cowls, killer Batmen, and gritty monochromatic realism, Shazam! continues DC’s newfound grove as the weirdo cousin of the superhero movie multiverse. Leaning full brunt into the bonkers aspect of a world where certain citizens are bulletproof, immortal, and/or can chat with sharks, this latest origin story from the DCEU steps out of the shadows of the Zack Snyder-era of Batman v. Superman, fully embracing the goofy prospect of heroes living among us and building it up one ridiculous costume at a time. This time out, it’s a kid donning said costume and this latest chapter in the ever-evolving DC world absolutely revels in the goof. 

Shazam! very much rises from the primordial goop of Aquaman, the first of DC’s films to chuck out the old style guide and outpace chief competition Marvel in the ridiculous department, brightening the color palette and heavily piling on the one-liners. As indicated by its ocean-deep worldwide cume, many clearly connected with the story of Arthur Curry as told by James Wan even if I found it to be largely stupid and without many redeeming qualities (even for a movie that had Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead). As it stands, DC is tucked in a chrysalis, reinventing itself and, unlike the protagonist of Shazam, seemingly maturing backwards. 

[READ MORE: Our not-so-hot review of ‘Justice League’]

The days of the grave and gravely-voiced heroes are clearly behind us and no one in the DC stable better represents that than Billy Batson (Asher Angel), the street-smart foster kid who’s granted the power to turn into an adult super version of himself by shouting “Shazam!” With that utterance and a zap of lightning, Billy gains super strength, bullet immunity, the power to control electricity, and, in time, the ability to fly. Shazam, or as sidekick Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) likes to call him “Captain Sparkle Fingers”, is the antithesis of self-serious pomp, the film channeling movies like Big to play up the goofiness of a regular kid that can turn himself into a muscle-bound man in a red suit after being bewitched by a wizard (Djimon Hounson).

Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and screenwriter Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) largely achieve the Herculean task of moving a lower-tier DC character with a ridiculous backstory and bogus powers into the limelight and does so by beaming the material with a super-charged amount of heart. Really grinding in the whole “we’re fun now” aspect, Shazam! is loaded with smarm and bright performances. This is a movie that takes place outside the shadows of a lair but does find itself foraying into some surprisingly dark corners every now and again with some frightening imagery that’ll assure audiences that Sandberg hasn’t completely forgone his horror roots.  Some of Shazam!‘s many goofy gags land perfectly while others prove overreaching and lame but, by and large, the effect is more spellbinding than Aquaman and it’s easy to find yourself enrapt within this universe and its obvious sense of playfulness. The humor can hedge on the side of being a touch immature but that’s to be expected with the 13 Going on 30 conceit of a teenager suddenly embodying a grown man.

[WATCH MORE: Check out the trailer for the hotly anticipated ‘Joker‘]

Shazam! invests heavily in exploring the ramifications of a kid gaining superpowers; rushing to the convenient store to buy beer, posing for selfies, and patronizing the 18+ topless bars; but it’s the relationships and emphasis on family that remains the heartbeat of Sandberg’s creation. The emotional through-line of family being much more than whose blood is coursing their veins is explored in the opposing journey of Billy and his to-be-nemesis, both of whom struggle with their identity in the shadow of disappointing upbringings. 

Even though a laudable amount of time is invested in fleshing out the backstory of supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the character mostly remains a one-dimensional chode, just as manically hungry for revenge and power as all the other disposable villains out there and the film suffers for it. After a somewhat unbalanced but mostly entertaining second act, Shazam! lurches into an overlong battle set piece that makes audiences feel the length more than you probably would want to. But just about every time I felt like that the story was unraveling or I was falling out of interest, Sandberg punches the film with a new twist or a commendable gag that got me right back in the thick of things. 

[READ MORE Our take on the divisive (but bad) ‘Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice’]

Telling the story from the perspective of a foster child allows Shazam! a different vantage point for this super-story to unfold and though we’ve seen ole regular Joe Shmoe turn into Mr. Laser-Eye Beefcake plenty of times before this does feel different, which is a critical factor in a cinematic landscape bursting at the gills with super-sameness. Shazam! wears its heart on its sleeve and goes deep dive in terms of being over-the-top silly, vaulting over even the most breezy of Marvel efforts and completely flipping the script on what the DCEU initially tried to establish in the run-up to Justice League. Major credit is due to Zachary Levi, who makes the adult version of Billy a full-blown goober. At times, the incredibly silly adult version of the character isn’t quite in sync with his brooding teenage counterpoint but Levi is such a joy to watch embody this character that any time he’s onscreen, you’re lulled into smiling complacency, which, when all is said and done, is the endgame goal for all these superheroes things anyhow.

CONCLUSION: ‘Shazam!’ reins DC back into a world where being a superhero is fun, and more importantly, fun to watch, and though the movie has its share of flaws, its clever premise and a hugely enjoyable performance from Zachary Levi make this one of the few good offerings from the DCEU.

B-

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