After years watching glowering avengers trudge through the muck, their rippling shoulders buckling under the weight of the world, superheroes have a spring in their step again. Being gifted with awesome power may be an awesome responsibility, but it’s also just plain awesome. This particular strain of woo-hoo has taken root in, of all places, the DC Extended Universe, home to Ben Affleck’s gone-to-seed Batman and Henry Cavill’s stoic Superman, as well as the scowling malcontents of Suicide Squad. Not long ago, Zack Snyder, who held the reins of the DCEU until personal issues prompted him to step aside, rolled his eyes at viewers who pressed for a more optimistic take on the genre: “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t fucking lie to America.’ … But you’re living in a fucking dream world.”
Snyder’s Justice League was meant to be the DCEU’s keystone, but it got outperformed at the box office by Wonder Woman and the movie’s breakout character was Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, whose own movie—a candy-colored, borderline-camp fantasia with crab people and a drum-playing octopus—surpassed them both. Gal Gadot’s Diana and Momoa’s Arthur Curry shared a sense of glee that their colleagues in Gotham and Metropolis could never seem to muster; her infectious grin and his meme-able whoops gave us permission to identify with their heroes rather than gaze up at them from below. Superheroes: They’re just like us!
Shazam!’s Billy Batson (Asher Angel) goes them one step better, relatability-wise. He’s not a godlike being who occasionally passes for human; he’s an ordinary teenage boy, with all the vulnerability and unfinished character that suggests. Djimon Hounsou’s wizard, a booming eminence with a long gray beard and desperate eyes, has spent decades searching for a pure-hearted person worthy of taking up his mantle, but by the time he gets to Billy, he is willing to settle. Billy smirks when the wizard asks him to “lay your hands on my staff”—you can almost see him fighting the urge to say “That’s what she said”—and outright snickers when he’s asked to repeat the wizard’s goofy-sounding name: Shazam. But one utterance and he’s transformed into the ultimate version of himself: a grown-up hunk, played by Zachary Levi, with strongman muscles and a crackling lightning-bolt emblem on his chest.
Billy lives in a world where Superman and Batman fend off threats to humanity’s very existence, but in non-mythic Philadelphia, there’s not much for a newly empowered he-man to do. When he rushes to the aid of what he thinks is a damsel in distress, he finds a mugger uttering high-pitched screams, the woman who’s just pepper-sprayed him standing calmly at his side. So Billy does what any teenage boy would were he suddenly plopped into an adult body: He buys beer and ducks into a strip club. Shazam! being a generally innocent and warm-hearted movie, he spits out the former and emerges from the latter after only a few minutes, cradling a basket of chicken wings and gushing about how friendly the dancers were.
To be fair, Billy hasn’t had much of a childhood to begin with. He’s been bouncing from one foster home to the next for nearly a decade, searching for his mother and honing his street smarts, and though his most recent posting, a group house headed by two big-hearted ex–foster kids (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), seems especially welcoming, he’s not ready to make himself at home. But when his foster brother and aspiring sidekick, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), starts posting videos, Billy discovers something worth sticking around for: the love of the crowd. Superman holes up in his Fortress of Solitude, but Shazam takes to the streets, charging for selfies like a Times Square Elmo and shooting lightning from his hands while he sings the Rocky theme.
Shazam! is slow going early on, with a ponderous prologue that sets up Mark Strong’s villainous Thaddeus Sivana, who was approached by the wizard but found wanting, and chose to harbor the Seven Deadly Sins (a horde of ropey-looking digital demons) instead. But it comes alive once Billy steps into his grown-up suit, and Levi busts out his overgrown-child charisma. (At one point, he actually steps on a giant keyboard Big style.) In his supporting role in the past two Thor movies, Levi effectively cosplayed Cary Elwes, but here he seems like he’s swimming in his padded suit, stumbling over words as if he’s forcing them through a mouthful of invisible braces. When the movie’s villain shows up and knocks him flat, he’s not just stunned or angry: He’s scared.
The movie, which was written by Henry Gayden and directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation), is almost goofy to a fault, its reflexive demythologizing riding the edge of glib parody—at times it’s a notch away from a Saturday Night Live sketch. But it gives the character a range of emotions that superhero movies rarely get to indulge, since even the entries that branch off can’t stray too far from the main stem. Levi doesn’t reach, or even strive for, the iconic stature of a larger-than-life hero. But in some ways, his is the most full-blooded performance the recent wave of comic-book movies has seen.
Even better, those emotions are contagious. Shazam! doesn’t inspire awe, and its de rigueur post-credits scenes don’t leave you desperate to know what happens next (although one will leave you wondering what the hell it’s about). But there’s a warmth and generosity to it that feels genuine and non-algorithmic, an outgrowth of the story rather than something shoehorned in to fit a plot point in some other film. Although it’s technically about saving the world (again), Shazam! plays out at eye level, grounded by the belief that who people love and where they feel they belong is stakes enough. If that violates the exigencies of franchise filmmaking, so be it. I’m not dying to see another Shazam movie, but I’m awfully glad I saw this one.