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There have been some shining examples of ideal casting in the superhero genre over the years. Christopher Reeve as the original on-screen Superman. Hugh Jackman and his masterful run through the X-Men saga as Wolverine. And the bulk of the original Avengers, with an emphasis on Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. To that list, we now add Zachary Levi’s Billy Batson, a teenage boy who transforms into a mighty, bulky hero (cape and all) by shouting the magic word “Shazam!”
The gimmick? Billy remains a teenage boy, even though he’s in the body of a man. And it’s there where the natural innocence and boyish charms of Levi make Shazam a winning, flawed and inspirational character, and Shazam! a rousing comic book origin story that stands apart from the pack.
Asher Angel actually plays Billy Batson in teenage form, an orphan who has bounced from family to family, mainly because he’s hellbent on finding the mother he lost at an early age. They were at a carnival together when Billy, then an adolescent, got lost in the crowd. Now he uses every resource available to track his mom down – even if that means breaking into a police officer’s car to access their dashboard computer.
Billy gets another (and possibly his last) chance when he joins a foster family led by the caring and sympathetic Vasquez couple, Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans). They welcome Billy into their motley crew of castoffs, including the college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), the tech-savvy Eugene (Ian Chen) and the nosy Darla (Faithe Herman).
But Billy gets a shadow in his counterpart, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a handicapped smartass who’s obsessed with the DC superheroes who exist in this universe. Freddy has a replica Bat-arang, an Aquaman t-shirt, and a bullet that allegedly was fired into Superman’s chest. Freddy cares about superheroes as much as Billy cares about finding his real mom, which is to say, “A lot.”
That comes in handy one day when Billy is recruited by a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to assume the mantle of Shazam – yes, it’s a comic-book movie, but trust me, this makes sense in the context of the story. The Wizard has been searching for a worthy heir to his power for generations. He thought he found his successor in Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). But Sivana failed the Wizard’s tests, and now is being manipulated by The Seven Deadly Sins, smoky and scaly demon creatures that are influenced by the sins upon which they are named.
So yeah, there’s a substantial amount of backstory that’s juggled in Shazam!, and to the credit of David F. Sandberg, none of it ever feels rushed or shortchanged. The movie actually starts with the story of Sivana and the Wizard, then catches Billy Batson up with that world while we also find out about his orphan past. The pacing may be choppy at first, but Shazam! eventually finds its groove.
In fact, the movie truly starts to soar the minute young Billy turns into Shazam, as Zachary Levi slips effortlessly into the role of a child in a man’s body, and never loses the self-confidence that stems from immaturity. Shazam isn’t a professional crime fighter like Batman, or a noble warrior like Wonder Woman. He’s a kid who’s frequently in over his head, and Shazam! never lets its lead – or the audience – forget that.
The spectacular casting extends beyond Levi, though. Grazer (who people met in IT) is the ideal sarcastic sidekick to Levi’s overmatched superhero. Billy’s new foster family is loaded with gems, though the standout has to be Fulton as the motherly Mary. And there’s a theme of “family” in the Vasquez clan that receives a wonderful, heartwarming payoff when all is said and done.
Like Aquaman and Wonder Woman before it, Shazam! benefits tremendously from being allowed to operate outside of the DC Universe, while also acknowledging that it exists alongside movies like Man of Steel and Justice League. In comparison to those efforts, however, Shazam! can actually feel small. The stakes of the plot are relatively low, with Sivana being a threat to our hero but less of a danger to the world at large. Where Aquaman was intentionally epic in scope, Shazam! always maintains the feel of a neighborhood story, for better and for worse.
Still, instead of wasting time forcing connections to pre-existing features, David F. Sandberg and his creative team are able to flesh out Billy’s compact world, strengthening his relationships to his new “family.” And for those who need it, the screenplay also establishes a necessary foundation of magic and wizardry that can be explored in Shazam! sequels (and there’s a doozie of a tease in the mid-credits, so stick around).
More Shazam! movies will be welcome, so long as Zachary Levi remains in the suit. He’s the right lead for this blend of action and comedy, and while it doesn’t mean that every DC movie moving forward needs to embrace the lighter tones and smaller scale on display in Shazam!, I’m grateful that Sandberg brought that touch to this delightful material.