“SHAZAM!” — 3½ stars — Zachary Levi, Djimon Hounsou, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong; PG-13 (intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material); in general release; running time: 132 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — “Shazam!” may not be the best DC comic book movie, but it’s easily the most fun.
David F. Sandberg’s origin story about a Philadelphia foster kid who becomes a superhero is fun, funny and surprisingly moving. It opens in 1974 in upstate New York, when a car crash magically transports a young boy to a mystic chamber called the Council of Wizards. Here, the last remaining wizard — Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) — is searching for a worthy champion to carry his powers.
Flash-forward to present-day Philadelphia, and the search is still on. Dozens of children have reported similar strange encounters. The newest candidate is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a precocious teen who has been searching for his biological mother while bouncing between different foster homes.
Billy’s newest foster parents, Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans), show some promise. Victor and Rosa are enthusiastic and witty, awkward in a parent kind of way, and they regularly gather their houseful of foster kids for family prayer. The other kids harbor the usual adolescent foibles — Eugene (Ian Chen) is constantly buried in video games, and young Darla (Faithe Herman) constantly pesters her older siblings — but Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) and his erstwhile crutch is the closest thing to a kindred spirit.
Freddy goes from roommate to sidekick when Billy fights off some school bullies and gets transported to the wizard’s lair during an ensuing subway ride. In the aftermath, Billy finds himself imbued with superpowers; simply by saying the name “Shazam” out loud, he turns from a wide-eyed precocious teen to a fully-grown, comically oversized superhero (played by Zachary Levi) in a bright red suit and white cape.
But every superhero must have his nemesis, and while Billy and Freddy are busy testing out his new powers and building a following by posting videos online, a villain named Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) emerges from the shadows, wielding his own darker brand of magic.
“Shazam!” has a long list of strengths, starting with a cheeky, bright sense of humor that leads to many laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a pretty drastic change of pace from the sparse humor found in other recent DC movies — even last year’s “Aquaman” — and some fans may wonder how its comic tone will mesh with other DC heroes. But “Shazam!” is a flat-out refreshing good time.
It’s also insightful, as we see an immature Billy wrestle with the adult responsibility of new powers that require a few growing pains. Levi — who will be a guest at the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention on April 20 — is a perfect fit as the “grown-up” superhero, channeling the best of his work on the TV show “Chuck” into a role that echoes Tom Hanks in “Big.” Grazer is great fun opposite both versions of the hero, and Strong’s baddie is given a unique backstory of his own.
The humor blends nicely with some engaging action and effects, but the film's biggest surprise is the way it weaves a touching story about Billy’s foster family into the narrative, culminating in what might be the movie’s best moment during the finale.
“Shazam!” is the seventh installment in the DC Extended Universe and ranks right up there with “Wonder Woman” — which holds the No. 1 spot in many DC superhero fans' hearts. But “Shazam!” carves out a niche all its own and should be a blast of a ride for audiences young and old to enjoy.
Rating explained: “Shazam!” is rated PG-13 for CGI-enhanced action violence, some bleeped profanity and a suggestive, if discreet, running gag about a local strip club.