It’s been a long time since superheroes could be dismissed as mere kid stuff, thanks to stories as intelligent as Black Panther or as disturbing as The Dark Knight or as gleefully inappropriate as Deadpool.
But lost in all the praise over how mature and thoughtful and boundary-pushing these films can be is the fact that, well, superheroes are kid stuff. Most of us first fell in love with these larger-than-life crusaders as children, over comic books or Saturday morning cartoons or family trips to the multiplex.
Shazam! is the first live-action superhero movie in a while that seems to remember this. It’s pitched as, essentially, a beefed-up Big – a wish-fulfillment fantasy of becoming older and stronger and cooler – but with the emotional complexity of the best kids’ stories.
The premise of Shazam! is rather batty, even by comic-book-hero standards: Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a Philly foster kid with a Han Solo-ish tendency toward recklessness, is magically selected as the champion for an ancient circle of wizards sworn to protect humankind from the Seven Deadly Sins.
Or, eh, something like that. The tl;dr of it all is that Billy emerges with the ability to transform himself into a grown-up superhero (a perfectly cast Zachary Levi) simply by uttering “shazam,” and promptly goes about acting exactly as you’d expect a 14-year-old suddenly blessed with these gifts to act. – within the limits of a PG-13 blockbuster, of course.
Meanwhile, he’s chased by Thaddeus (Mark Strong), who as a young boy was himself considered for the champion role, only to be sent down a dark path when he was unceremoniously dumped and told he’d never be worthy.
The material involving Thaddeus and the Seven Deadly Sins might be the only thing that keeps Shazam! from feeling like a true all-ages adventure. Director David F. Sandberg made his name in horror (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) before helming Shazam! and it shows, in that he’s perhaps too effective at making the monsters scary. Those watching with younger or more sensitive children will want to exercise caution.
But Shazam! otherwise seems tailor-made for the young and the young at heart. The pacing is bouncy, the jokes are goofy, and the colors are vivid. The ponderousness and ambivalence that hang over many of the “grown-up” entries in the genre are absent here; Shazam! is a big open sky inviting you to come on up and test out those flight powers you just acquired.
Preferably with a friend who can really appreciate it, like Billy’s foster brother and resident superhero expert Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, the clear standout of the young cast). One of Shazam!‘s most delightful surprises is its young cast, who play their characters not as precocious movie brats but as real three-dimensional individuals with their own idiosyncrasies.
What keeps Shazam! from floating off into space, though, is its grounded approach to Billy’s non-superheroic problems. The film takes seriously the challenges of childhood and adolescence, and the long-ranging effects of early traumas. Billy’s messy feelings about finding a new family, after losing his mother years ago, are given every bit as much weight as his journey toward becoming a true hero.
It’s unexpectedly rocky emotional terrain for an otherwise sunny film about the sheer fun of getting real big and punching out bad guys in front of adoring crowds, but Shazam! navigates it confidently, letting organic character development take the lead and striking a balance between humor and heart. And in the end, it fits, because that’s another thing Shazam! gets right about kid stuff: It knows that being a child can be really freaking complicated sometimes.