‘Shazam!’ is effortlessly entertaining, heartfelt

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For the uninitiated, Shazam was originally known as Captain Marvel, the best selling comic of the 1940s, even over Superman. But, rival Marvel Comics had a female hero of the same name, who bested him in court. So, he was renamed for the superpower catch-phrase, which Gomer Pyle (ask your grandparents) made famous, “Shazam!”

Not so coincidentally, Marvel Comic’s Captain Marvel blockbuster was released just last month, while DC Comics’ Captain Marvel, uh, Shazam! leads the current box office. His alter ego is 14-year old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), with typical comic hero alliteration, who exclaims “Shazam!” to become an adult superhero (Zachary Levi, “Chuck”), with the powers of superhuman strength, speed, flight and what he calls “bullet immunity.”

Not that it’s important, but “SHAZAM” is an acronym for the six immortal elders, Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. The movie tagline is, “He’s not so serious.” And, we say, thank you for the new trend away from gloomy, moody, conflicted superheroes. Hey, it’s a comic book! Fortunately, this guy came to have some fun, so grab a bucket of popcorn and enjoy this kid-friendly Saturday Matinee with your family.

The movie begins with the old wizard (not to be confused with a grand wizard) Shazam, portrayed by Djimon Hounsou, who also co-starred in last month’s “Captain Marvel.” The aging Shazam needs to find a successor to his throne, but can’t find one that is pure of heart. After many years, he settles for the troubled teenager, Billy Batson. Sure, the kid has issues, but is kind of a diamond in the rough (or, is that another story?).

The initial 30 minutes are somewhat confusing, filled with flashbacks of multiple characters, but the kids in the theater seemed to follow it just fine. Billy has run away from numerous foster homes, but this time, the perfect family might have taken him in. Surprisingly, horror movie director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) orchestrates genuine family chemistry with character depth, pathos and humor.

Billy is initially suspicious, “Families are for people who can’t take care of themselves.” But this family interaction works so well primarily due to the wisecracking foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who tells Billy, “You look at me like, why so dark? You’re a disabled foster kid, you got it all!” Little sister Darla (Faithe Herman “This is Us”) is just adorable and big sister Mary (Grace Fulton) is wholesomely bright and attractive.

Similar to how he portrayed the superhero in TV’s “Chuck,” Levi is goofy and entertaining, but now buffed. Again, he’s a little too eager in his portrayal as a man-child adult. It might not too noticeable, but teenage Billy is more serious and mature than his adult version. Nonetheless, when he keeps repeating, “I believe I can fly,” we’re just glad they didn’t work in an R. Kelly reference. Oops, think we just did, sorry.

The pace picks up when Freddy helps Billy methodically determine the depth of his newfound superpowers backed by a spirited Queen soundtrack of “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But soon, they will be facing an evil nemesis, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). Shazam asks, “You’re like a bad guy, right?” Sivana is backed by the seven deadly sins and determined to steal this boy’s powers at any cost.

“Shazam!” is 132 minutes and rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material. The requisite superhero battles are exciting and lengthy. But, the heartfelt story of the surrogate family is at times, moving. The mom’s bumper sticker reads, “I’m a foster mom, what’s your superpower?” Maybe we all have a superhero inside of us.

The script of this origin story underwent a series of rewrites, which usually spells doom for any movie. In this case, the smart premise and witty script seem like time well spent. Today’s kids spend a lot of time playing a superhero, so here they get their chance to bask in the glory. They say people stop playing when they get old. Or, maybe they get old because they stop playing.

Ron’s Rating: B+
Leigh’s Rating: B+

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