Fundamentally, superheroes are cultural power fantasies. It’s a cardinal truth that the genre, in its pursuit of interconnected architectures precipitated on crossovers and team-ups, has largely left behind. Being “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” comes with bragging rights.
Enter “Shazam!” The latest DC Comics adaptation follows Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old on a dogged search for the mother he was separated from as a toddler. After pranking some police officers, Billy finds himself in the umpteenth foster home and immediately sets his sights on running away. But, before he can do so, a mysterious portal on a Philadelphia subway transports him to a dilapidated throne room. There, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) bestows his power unto Billy, then says something about saving the world and promptly crumbles into ash.
This foreboding warning quickly becomes a distant memory for Billy, who is positively giddy about his gift. By uttering the name “Shazam,” he transforms into the eponymous superhero (Zachary Levi), a seemingly invincible beefcake with pronounced pectorals and a plethora of powers. But Billy must learn that great power comes with great responsibility. Soon after, the envious Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a very bald and very serious maniac who was denied the powers of Shazam as a child, becomes a vessel for the Seven Deadly Sins (yes, those ones) and starts wreaking havoc.
What’s most involving is, rather surprisingly, Billy’s resistance to connecting with his foster family. The school bullies his siblings have to endure wouldn’t feel out of place in a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” script, but in “Shazam!” there’s more color and compassion brought to the table than in any of those movies. The surprise ray of sunshine is Darla (Faithe Herman), an affectionate blabbermouth whom Billy is forced to entrust to keep his identity secret. Herman elevates every scene she’s in and demonstrates better comic timing than most leading men working today.
In fact, it’s almost a bummer whenever Billy transforms into Shazam because the film abandons these relationships when it should be developing them. The only bond the film carries over is between Billy and his Superman fanboy foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who becomes a sage to the kid hero and helps him learn his powers. Not only is “Shazam!” about the thrill of being a superhero — it’s also the chance to know one, giving a comic book fan the opportunity to put all the trivia they’ve internalized to use. Freddy leads Billy’s experimental training, which consists of derring-do and night-on-the-town shenanigans such as begging armed robbers to shoot Shazam in the face and buying beer for the first time (and promptly spitting it out). The gags come fast and hit more often than not.
But fast-paced montages are where the concept shines brightest. The movie begins to flounder once it needs to introduce conflict into the brothers’ relationship. Initially he is convincing as a full-blooded man child, Levi’s comic performance sours once he proves unequipped to handle the dramatic stakes of his character. His verbal anticlimaxes begin to feel misplaced between life-threatening stakes and expository gobbledygook, and the actor succumbs to a self-satisfied huckster shtick that slips dangerously close to a Jimmy Fallon approximation.
Without a reliably buoyant leading man, “Shazam!” ends up resigning itself to the same pitfalls its adult-led peers do: narrative constipation, ineptly argued moral stances and an interminable finale that smooths out its CGI kinks with intentionally obfuscating nighttime photography. The movie earns its heart, but it makes the fatal mistake of trying to make kids playing dress-up behave like the real thing.