Try as it might, DC’s cinematic universe has always struggled to escape the orbit of its own sobriety. Aquaman tried but his watery gags floated like unflushable turds. Wonder Woman gave a sideways glance at levity but got bogged down in its own cause, and the rest have all fallen cringe-fully flat. Shazam! at least goes some way to rectify matters with an origins story that has an eighties blockbuster charm, bringing welcome relief from The Joker’s ironic DC catch-cry “why so serious?”
Drawing heavily on the “who were my parents” superhero trope, fourteen-year-old Billy (played by newcomer Asher Angel) is on his third foster home. When he is mysteriously swept into another realm, he reluctantly takes on the mantle as the world’s guardian against the seven deadly sins—whereby he can transform in and out of a fully grown muscle-bound superhero (played by Zachary Levi) simply by uttering the name “Shazam”. Unsurprisingly, the film develops rather quickly into a “with great power comes great responsibility” tale; a well-worn shtick that you could hang any superhero story on.
But things get interesting in the dynamic between Billy and his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). The two go on a rampage of hilarious hijinks as they goofily skylark about town, discovering Billy’s newfound powers. Again, not the most original idea, but here it is presented with the unbridled joy of two teens who have just found the keys to their parent’s liquor cabinet.
Mark Strong brings his usual clipped vocal gravitas to the obligatory power-hungry villain. He has a warped version of Billy’s parentless upbringing, but beyond that tiny nugget of character depth Strong’s role is fairly undemanding, the kind of role that any actor with a semblance of screen-presence could phone in. Indeed, he does just that.
Throw in plenty of punchsplosions along with an effects-laden finale and you have a DC flick that’s more enjoyable than most of its predecessors. Shazam!, like the ridiculousness of its name, never takes itself too seriously. It’s a sugar rush of a film, great while it lasts but has you plummeting off the high soon afterwards.