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Dustin Putman

Shazam!  (2019)
2½ Stars
Directed by David F. Sandberg.
Cast: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Djimon Hounsou, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Adam Brody, Meagan Good, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Michelle Borth, Caroline Palmer, Evan Marsh, Carson MacCormac, Ethan Pugiotto, David Kohlsmith, Lotta Losten, Michelle Borth.
2019 – 132 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for language and suggestive material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, March 19, 2019.
Who didn't, as a child, long to have superpowers? Acquiring extraordinary strength; becoming bulletproof; taking flight—these abilities and plenty more are all wrapped up in the wish fulfillment of youthful imagination. It is, in part, due to this universal fantasy that most young and young-at-heart audiences will take to "Shazam!" Based on the DC Comics character created by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck—a character, fascinatingly enough, who originally went by the moniker Captain Marvel—this playful adventure imagines what it might be like if a young teenage boy was given the thrilling capability of transforming himself into a muscular, thirtysomething, spandex-and-cape-wearing superhero by simply uttering the title magic word. Director David F. Sandberg, who previously displayed a mastery of building set-pieces of jittery tension in 2016's "Lights Out" and 2017's "Annabelle: Creation," exhibits some of this same foreboding inspiration in between an otherwise fairly lighthearted tale of overcoming adversity while finding one's place in the world. The results are likable and aesthetics indelible even when the film's humor is neither as sharp nor laugh-aloud funny as it wants to be.

Rebellious 14-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has searched for his mother (Caroline Palmer) ever since the day years ago when she vanished during a carnival outing. Refusing to get close to others when he's sure his real mom is still out there, Billy doesn't think much when he's taken in by welcoming new foster parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). His uncertain family situation and future collide with an unexpected fateful destiny when the special Godlike magic of an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) is passed onto him. A now-adult Billy (Zachary Levi) and new friend/foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) at first delight just as much in his abilities to buy beer and visit a gentlemen's club as they do the amazing superpowers he now possesses, but their adolescent fun and games come to an end when Billy's archenemy is revealed: Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a once-jilted candidate for Billy's otherworldly gifts who is willing to do anything—even unleash monstrous representations of the seven deadly sins on the world—to attain them.

A teenage kid suddenly made bigger has been covered in everything from 1988's wonderful "Big" (amusingly referenced here in one brief scene) to 2004's charming "13 Going on 30." "Shazam!" plays like a crossbreed between two familiar formulas: the body-swap comedy and a superhero origin story. On both fronts, director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden (2014's "Earth to Echo") do not exactly extract a whole lot of freshness from the proceedings. What they do manage to succeed at, however, is finding a beating center. The gags exploring Billy's new imposing frame, the grown-up activities in which he can now partake, and his seemingly plastered-on costume could have been made sharper with another rewrite, but the juggling of a breezy tone with more dramatically consequential subject matter proves increasingly involving and adept. The best moments—a brutal boardroom confrontation between Thaddeus and his terminally unloving father and older brother; a pivotal reunion between Billy and a loved one from his past; a climactic moment where Billy's full superpowers and the responsibility which comes with them coalesce as he takes flight from the roof of a skyscraper—are strong enough to cause one's arm hair to stand on end.

While Zachary Levi (2009's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel") doesn't consistently convince as the 14-year-old Billy in a grown man's body—Asher Angel (TV's Andi Mack), as the younger-looking Billy, affectingly plays the role with a more brooding-eyed quality—he makes up for it in sheer disarming enthusiasm. Too often these days in superhero fare, villains come off as undernourished afterthoughts, but Mark Strong (2017's "Kingsman: The Golden Circle") portrays a pretty great one; his Thaddeus Sivana is genuinely threatening and spiteful, but there's also more to him than one-note evilness, the opening scenes of a younger, underappreciated Thad (Ethan Pugiotto) going a long way to inform how he grew into the bitter, power-hungry person he becomes. As Billy's mischievous new foster brother Freddy, a kid constantly underestimated due to his physical disabilities, Jack Dylan Grazer exhibits the same charisma he did as Eddie in 2017's "It: Chapter One." The scene-stealer of the show, though, is Faithe Herman (TV's "This Is Us"), a dynamo as Billy's talkative younger foster sister Darla. Every moment with her is brighter and funnier and sweeter than the rest.

Right down to its end-credits use of The Ramones' "I Don't Want to Grow Up," there is an anarchic spirit running throughout "Shazam!"—while still, it should be stated, remaining within the boundaries of its PG-13 rating. Like a kid-friendly "Deadpool," the film combines action, broad comedy, and emotion into a pleasing brew. What it might have used is a more judicious editor; at 132 minutes, the film overstays its welcome during an extended third act in need of tightening. "Shazam!" doesn't sugarcoat the tough truths which sometimes arise for children abandoned or given up for adoption by birth parents, but also finds hope in Billy's gradual acceptance of a different but no less loving kind of family. This personal arc marks a noble capper to a rather jovial superhero fable where light and darkness can sometimes be but a breath away from each other.
© 2019 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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