There are plenty of moments of joy still to be found wedged inside many of the precision-engineered blockbusters rolling off the contemporary Hollywood production line. The microscopic fight inside a free-falling handbag in 2015’s Ant-Man, say, or the moment in 2017’s Spiderman Homecoming when both superhero and high school plot lines converge – on prom night – in one hilarious revelation.
It might take a while to fly off the ground, but once Shazam! gets its villain-centric exposition out of the way and establishes its central conceit, the film is full of such joyful moments. It’s one of the most enjoyable superhero films of recent times: a fun, creative and self-reflexive adventure.
Teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster child in Philadelphia. At the film’s outset he joins a new foster home and gains five new brothers and sisters, including the superhero-obsessed Freddy (Zach Dylan Grazer). Through a convoluted series of events involving a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) hanging out on the so-called Rock of Eternity seeking somebody who is pure of heart, Billy gains the ability to transform on cue into a thirtysomething superhero called Shazam (Zachary Levi).
The film has a lot of fun with this conceit, as Billy and Freddy try to figure out his new powers. Of course, one of the first things Billy-in-adult-superhero-mode does is buy a carton of beer. He also tests out his newly acquired superpowers. Can he turn invisible? Leap tall buildings in a single bound? Shoot electricity? He becomes a minor local celebrity, posing for selfies and shooting electricity out of his fingers for money.
All of this attracts the attention of the villainous Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, in a characteristically intense performance). Like Billy, Thad is suffering from major family issues. He’s hellbent on revenge, and the film’s darker scenes, which are genuinely scary demonstrations of his powers, occasionally sit awkwardly with its lighter tone for most of the running time.
But Shazam! gets more fun as it goes along. The central performances are key to this appeal, notably Zachary Levi’s. His grasp of physical comedy nicely conveys that he’s a teenager in an adult’s body.
The final superhero fight is worth singling out for being both a funny satire of how these scenes usually play out, and a heartfelt manifestation of the film’s central thematic concern: the joy and connection that can be found in creating your own family.
All of this takes place in a Philadelphia setting that is very much integral to the film, and feels lived in, in the way glistening urban environments in so many franchise movies of this ilk do not. Key locations, including the school the kids attend, their foster home, a large shopping centre and the carnival, feel like real, inhabited places.
The Rock of Eternity does not. But the fact that this location, which is host to the film’s more magical plot elements, looks like a set only enhances the fantasy elements. These scenes have the quality of a dream, which is how the characters experience them.
Thankfully the filmmakers have seen fit not to try awkwardly shoehorning other DC comics characters into the film, although there are plenty of references to Batman and Superman. The deftness with which these are sprinkled perfectly reflects the film’s broader lightness of touch.
As the film goes on, and Billy comes to terms with his identity as both a superhero and a foster child, it’s hard not see his story as perfectly embodying the idea that superhero films act as a vessel of hope to jaded outcasts, and a canvas onto which fantasies of revenge and superheroics can be projected.
Some of the most appealing superhero films recognise and play up to this. They also remember to have fun while doing so. For the most part, Shazam! understands both sides of this equation. Crucially, once the lights go up, its heartfelt sense of fun continues to resonate.
Feature image: Warner Bros