Monday 20 May 2019

Shazam! review: Sharp, coherent and endlessly witty, it brings some much-needed warmth, charm and brains to the DC superhero table'

3 stars

Shazam!
Shazam!

Chris Wasser

What do you get when you cross Penny Marshall’s Big with Richard Donner’s Superman? The answer, according to this goofy, old-school superhero flick, is something along the lines of Shazam!

Here we have a shiny, new comic-book film that practically goes out of its way to remind casual viewers that the movie they’re watching is definitely — I repeat, definitely — DC property. Barely a quarter of an hour passes where somebody doesn’t mention Batman and/or Superman. Heck, at one stage, a small child has his Bruce and Clark dolls wrestle each other. You get the point.

What separates this sugared-up offering from everything else in the DC catalogue, however, is that it rarely takes itself too seriously. It’s exactly the kind of comic-book film that Hollywood used to make. It probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 80s. I think that might be intentional.

Our story concerns young Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old Philadelphian, who has spent most of his life in and out of foster homes. Billy is a bit of a handful, and one day, after pissing off a couple of police officers, our boy is placed in a new home with the loving, caring Vázquez family. It’s a full house and Billy is forced to share a room with young Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero fanatic, who might just come in handy later on.

A few weeks before the festive season, Billy is on the train home from school when, all of a sudden, his carriage takes a detour into another dimension, where a frail wizard by the name of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), warns our young protagonist that the world is in danger.

Shazam requires a champion — one who is pure at heart — to protect the earth from the seven deadly sin monsters (stay with me, now). He asks Billy to speak his name so that Shazam’s powers may be transferred to the boy. A sceptical Billy does just that and ends up transforming into a muscular, red-suited, superhero (Zachary Levi).

Naturally, Billy panics, turning to his mate, Freddy, for help. As far as Freddy is concerned, all of his Christmases have come at once and he begins to train his new superhero BFF.

Billy can snap in and out of his grown-up persona by saying the word ‘Shazam’, and he uses his new-found abilities to become an internet sensation. He’ll soon have bigger fish to fry, however, in the form of the evil Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a villainous scientist who was also summoned by Shazam as a child, but was rejected by the wizard, and has spent his entire life trying to get back to the other dimension.

True, it sounds kinda busy, but I’m happy to report that director David F Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) works hard to keep a lid on things. The unique selling point is its Big-like premise. At one stage, our hero literally crash lands into a children’s toy store, pausing for a moment to take stock of the giant piano mat beneath his feet. It’s an obvious reference, but it also reminds us that superhero films are supposed to be fun — and that’s exactly what Shazam! is.

Sharp, coherent and endlessly witty, Sandberg’s offering brings some much-needed warmth, charm and brains to the DC superhero table. Levi, in particular, displays some excellent comic chops as a teenage boy trapped in the body of a grown-up superhero. The bloke has no idea what he’s capable of — but has a whale of a time figuring it out.

Likewise, the great Mark Strong has a blast as the nasty, mean, old villain in the corner. A steady supporting cast brings its A game, and the special effects just about hold up.

True, Shazam! gets a little greedy towards the end, and it could probably stand to lose at least 20 minutes from its noisy finale. But hey, it gets the job done. It might just kick-start a new franchise. It’s a bit of a hoot. I didn’t see that coming.

Also releasing this week:

Pet Sematary review: Clever revival of Stephen King classic may put you off cats for life

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