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Review: 'Shazam!' gives the overworked superhero genre a fun, irreverent lift

Review: 'Shazam!' gives the overworked superhero genre a fun, irreverent lift
Zachary Levi, left, as Shazam and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman in the latest DC cinematic adventure. (Steve Wilkie / Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Seven Deadly Sins play a prominent role in “Shazam!,” the latest and loosest entertainment from that highly erratic, fitfully enjoyable pop-cultural entity known as the DC Extended Universe. Taking vaporous form as giant CGI gargoyles, the Sins are the evil minions — and masters — of Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), a glowering villain forged in the crucible of a grievously love-starved childhood. But Sivana meets his match and then some in the bulked-up form of Shazam (Zachary Levi), the goofy adopted super-persona of a teenager who also knows a thing or two about the pain of abandonment.

More on all that in a moment. For now, it’s worth noting that “Shazam!” commits none of the Seven Deadly Sins of franchise filmmaking, only the venial offenses of excessive multitasking and being a bit over-eager to please. The movie is too unpretentious for Pride, too jovial for Wrath, too self-admiring for Envy, too busy for Sloth. Two jokey scenes outside a strip club are the extent of its Lust, and the running time veers toward Gluttony only if you stay for the post-credits bits.

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As for Greed — well, let the Hollywood blockbuster that is without Greed cast the first Infinity Stone. (That’s a different franchise, I know. Kindly hold all corrections and death threats until the end of the review.)

Directed by David F. Sandberg from a script by Henry Gayden, “Shazam!” dusts off a character who was created in 1939 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck and given the name of Captain Marvel; for reasons that are now both obvious and too tortured to recount here, he was eventually renamed Shazam. One of the movie’s better jokes is that nobody knows what to call the guy (the most amusing option is “Captain Sparklefingers”).

In any case, when we first meet him he’s just Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a moody 14-year-old runaway. Bounced around from one Philadelphia foster home to another, he’s never given up trying to track down his mother, from whom he was separated as a kid.

Billy’s latest scrape lands him with a new family whose loving concern is immediately apparent, though Billy resists their attempts to make him feel like he belongs. He does reluctantly bond with his younger roommate, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a motormouth with a dark sense of humor — he has a walking disability, the true source of which he keeps joking about — and a deep love of superhero lore.

It can be risky turning a member of your movie’s presumed target audience into a major character. But Grazer, with his mile-a-minute delivery, does a nice job of gushing breathlessly over Batman and Superman while pretending not to know he’s already joined their corporate family.

Billy’s heroic destiny zaps into focus when he has an encounter with an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who’s the last of his benevolent kind and looking for a replacement. After a quick consultation with his staff, the enchanter decides that this stripling is sufficiently pure of heart to inherit his powers. And so Billy becomes Shazam, a fully grown, red-costumed superhero with a lightning bolt on his chest, electricity in his fingertips and not a ton between the ears. (He’s still a teenage troublemaker underneath all that grinning muscle.)

Shazam has a bunch of other powers, too, like superhuman strength and speed, which he and Freddy — who make an effortless comic duo — have a lot of fun discovering in the movie’s most infectiously entertaining sequence. One of his key discoveries is that he can toggle between identities by saying “Shazam!,” a trick that yields some pleasing slapstick in the early going. It also becomes a crucial if cowardly life-saving tactic when Sivana swoops in, determined to eliminate this threat to his sorcerous domain.

Looking a bit as if Jimmy Fallon had swallowed a refrigerator, Levi is basically playing the Tom Hanks role in a comic-book riff on “Big” (which gets a nudge-in-the-ribs shout-out here), and he gives an appropriately outsize performance that walks a thin line between joyous and irritating.

He’s good at suggesting someone who, in every sense, is not yet fully formed; exhilarated as he is by his transformation, Billy/Shazam remains awkwardly suspended between boyhood and manhood, with a jerkish streak that often gets the better of him. His initial reaction to his newfound superpowers is purely exploitative, which makes him ill-equipped to deal with real danger when it arises — as it does, in a harrowing rescue sequence shot with a real sense of visceral peril.

In time, of course, Shazam will learn. He will address his nagging abandonment issues and absorb the true meaning of family by embracing his foster parents (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) and his other foster siblings (Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen and Jovan Armand). The supporting players are a winning bunch — Herman and Fulton have especially sweet moments — and they help keep the movie aloft even when it threatens to buckle under all its jokes, subplots, emotional reckonings, tie-in references and repetitive action sequences. (And then there are Strong’s scenes of villainous retribution, which are bloodcurdling enough to remind you that Sandberg bagged his first Hollywood credits on the horror movies “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation.”)

With its fast-moving parts and less-than-seamless tonal swings, “Shazam!” can be an endearing, unwieldy meta-blob of a movie — one that, like last year’s sublimely ridiculous “Aquaman,” presents itself to us under the banner of pure escapism. That may well come as a relief if you find that superhero movies have become too dark and portentous since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. At long last, the logic goes, the forces of humor and lightness have penetrated the brooding storm clouds hovering over the DC Comics factory, banishing all that phony doom-and-gloom in a burst of pure entertainment.

Sounds lovely. But in taking stock of “Shazam!,” a movie whose pleasures are as real as its limitations, I’m reluctant to praise it as either a refreshing antidote or a template for the future — as if we needed more jokey, lighthearted superhero pictures to counteract all the heavy, somber ones. These choices of tone are in fact value-neutral qualities. Strained irreverence and failed whimsy can be as much of a drag as oppressive pseudo-profundity. The two social-media schools of thought on the subject — “Why can’t these movies just be fun?” vs. “Why can’t you treat these movies with the seriousness they deserve?” — are certainly alike in their utter tedium.

What’s killing the superhero movie — not that it shows any actual signs of dying — isn’t an excess of self-seriousness. It’s chronic overexposure, the fact that these pictures, for better or worse, now overwhelmingly set the studio agenda, to the detriment of vital but less obvious alternatives. “Shazam!” is hardly a solution. But at its best, it’s just deft and clever enough to not feel like part of the problem.

"Shazam" interview at Comic Con

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‘Shazam!’

Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material

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Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

Playing: In general release

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