Warning: spoiler treat just ahead!
Like, in the sentence after this one.
During one of the many zany action sequences in the relatively lighthearted, big ball of fun that is “Shazam!,” our hero steps on a giant, working floor piano and inadvertently plinks a few notes.
There it is. There’s the direct salute to Penny Marshall’s 1988 comedic classic “Big,” the story of a 12-year-old who makes a wish “to be big” and wakes up in the body of Tom Hanks.
The filmmakers and star of “Shazam!” have repeatedly been invoking the elevator pitch of “‘Superman’ meets ‘Big’ ” to describe their movie, and why not? It’s the perfect summary of this origin story about 14-year-old Billy Batson, who learns by shouting the word “Shazam!” he will find himself inside the body of a handsome, dashing, grown man in a red suit with a gold cape (superpowers to be discovered and harnessed along the way).
Working from a crisp and funny screenplay by Henry Gayden, the talented David F. Sandberg (who made a spectacular feature directorial debut with the crazy-scary “Lights Out”) directs this film in the style of a 1980s Amblin Entertainment adventure.
It’s a look and vibe well suited to the comedy-drama chops of the likable and gifted Zachary Levi (“Chuck,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), who has us believing he’s a bona fide, save-the-day superhero — AND a 14-year-old kid who’s over the moon about his transformation but does a lot of stupid teenager stuff with his gifts, because that’s what you’d do if you were 14 and you discovered bullets will bounce off your chest and you can now fly.
He’s basically a PG-13 version of “Deadpool.”
“Shazam!” begins with two stories about terrible parenting.
In the first prologue, set in the 1970s, a rigid, verbally abusive father (John Glover) constantly berates his youngest son as they drive on an icy road during the holidays. Suffice to say the night will not end well.
In the second setup, set in the recent past, a little boy is separated from his teenage mother at a carnival — and he never sees her again.
Each will have encounters with a rather ridiculous wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who is losing steam with his advancing age and is looking for a new “champion” — someone with a pure heart who will be entrusted with keeping the Seven Deadly Sins from returning to monstrous life and wreaking havoc on humanity.
The first kid grows up to be Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (portrayed by the bullet-headed Mark Strong), who looks as if he shops at Villains R Us and is clearly going to be the bad guy in our story.
The second kid is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troublemaker who has bounced from one foster home to another in the Philadelphia area ever since he was separated from his mother.
Billy’s cynical and rebellious — but he’s a good kid down deep. Our heart breaks for him as he spends nearly every waking free moment trying to track down his mom.
Tell you what, though: Billy’s latest foster parents Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) are so wonderful they should be winning awards. I mean, my parents were the greatest parents in the world, but if I had lived across the street from the extended Vasquez family, I would have been spending a lot of time over there.
We won’t get into the details of how Billy becomes Shazam — but it helps that his new roommate and friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, very funny) is an obsessive comics fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of the superhero universe, which comes in handy when it comes to determining which powers Billy possesses. (The segments where Billy and Freddy try to come up with a name for Billy’s “character” and engage in field tests to determine exactly what Shazam can do are laugh-out-loud funny.)
Levi and Grazer have terrific buddy-movie chemistry. Strong plays Dr. Sivana as if he’s a Bond villain, giving the story some genuine menace. (This guy kills people. Lots of people.)
One of the neat things about “Shazam” is it takes place in the real world — but a world in which DC Extended Universe characters such as Batman and Superman exist. Sure, it’s insanely amazing when Billy is transformed into Shazam, but it’s not like he’s the first superhero the world has ever known.
Some of the best scenes in “Shazam!” take place between the CGI pyrotechnics, as Billy slowly lets down his guard in the Vasquez home, which includes Freddy (who has a physical disability and is bullied at school); the college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), who is fiercely protective of the younger ones; the cheerfully geeky gaming enthusiast Eugene Choi (Ian Chen); the plus-sized and closed-off Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand); and the brilliant and precocious Darla (Faithe Herman), an African-American girl who NEVER STOPS TALKING, and we don’t want her to, because she’s so endearing.
Ever since Billy/Shazam was a kid, he’s been searching for his family. Now all he has to do is open his eyes and his heart, and he’ll see there’s one waiting for him with open arms.
I loved the spirit and the heart of this film.
New Line Cinema presents a film directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Henry Gayden, based on characters from DC. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material). Running time: 132 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.