Shazam! film review: “a refreshingly fun-filled hoot”

An orphan boy is reborn as a strapping superhero in this warm-hearted and whip-smart comedy for all the family

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★★★★

Men of steel and caped crusaders tend to be straight-faced, serious fellows who take their powers for granted, casually righting wrongs and fighting evil as onlookers watch in awe.

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It’s a refreshingly fun-filled hoot, therefore, to see a film in which the hero is as bedazzled as everyone else when he discovers just how awesome he’s become.

That wide-eyed wonder is integral to the action in Shazam!, which follows many of the conventions of superhero movies while boasting the broader appeal of a whip-smart, warm-hearted comedy that should find favour with audiences who might otherwise be immune to the lure of tights and Lycra.

In a brilliantly realised twist that provides laughs aplenty, the hero himself is the audience, specifically a 14-year-old boy. Asher Angel plays troubled Billy Batson, a serial runaway from countless foster homes, who goes to extraordinary (and illegal) lengths to find his birth mother, resisting all attempts by grown-ups to keep him safe.

In the latest of these homes he befriends another young misfit, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a wisecracking fan of superheroes and Billy’s soon-to-be confidante when he undergoes his jaw-dropping transformation.

Spirited away to a spooky lair by a mysterious, white-haired wizard, Billy learns that he’s been chosen to put the world to rights because of the untarnished goodness of his heart.

After the dramatic uttering of a magic word (can you guess what it is yet?), he’s whooshed back to present-day Philadelphia as a six-foot-plus slab of lantern-jawed beefcake, in the shape of Zachary Levi (The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Chuck).

Beyond exploring what powers he might possess in a hilarious succession of hit-and-miss stunts (and failing to settle on a suitably heroic name), the newly buff Billy does what almost every adolescent male would do: buy beer and check out the nearest strip club. It’s perhaps a little too moralistic that he concludes he doesn’t particularly care for either, but understandable in a movie that resolutely targets itself at a family audience.

The well-worn road map of superhero flicks dictates that every do-good protagonist has a villainous nemesis, and Shazam! doesn’t disappoint when it introduces Mark Strong as the ruthless Dr Thaddeus Sivana (that name should be a giveaway from the start). He, too, had come face-to-face with the aforementioned wizard as a child, but wasn’t deemed pure enough for the task ahead. Sivana was dismissively returned to the mortal world, although not before gaining the ability to summon up demons representing the seven deadly sins at the drop of a hat.

Of course, the kid-in-an-adult-body premise is nothing new, and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between Shazam! and Big, not least in a near-throwaway gag in a toy store that directly references a memorable scene from the 1988 Tom Hanks hit. There’s a lot of Hanks in Levi’s performance, which flits from fear that he’s out of his depth to cocky bravado when it dawns on him that the feats he’s now capable of are really rather “dope”.

Key to putting across Levi’s boyish Boy Wonder credentials is the naturalistic riffing between himself and Grazer, a supremely gifted comic thesp who’s equally adept when the script demands he show vulnerability. It’s a glorious double act – innocent charm laced with just the perfect measure of cynicism and mockery.

Strong, meanwhile, grabs the mantle of scar-faced baddie with both hands, in a role that contains echoes of his menacing turn in 2009’s Kick-Ass but with a side order of extra nastiness. Whenever the lightness of touch and knockabout mirth runs the risk of making the viewer too comfortable, he’s there to remind us that peril could (literally) knock on the door at any moment.

Shazam! may have started life as a late-1930s DC comic (its hero originally called Captain Marvel, but don’t let that confuse you), and while there are trace elements of those beginnings here, director David F Sandberg chooses to fashion a more widely accessible narrative. Yes, he and screenwriter Henry Gayden adhere to the familiar rules of good-versus-evil yarns, but this is something richer and more fulfilling; a joyous celebration of friendship and family in all its oddball guises.

As Billy Batson himself would confirm, it can summed up in a single word: magic.

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Shazam! is released in cinemas on Friday 5 April.