Shazam! film review: The DC Comics character has its heart in the right place and its tongue firmly in its cheek

Melissa York
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Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer in Shazam!

They say there’s a hero in all of us. Shazam! runs with that concept, punches it in the gut then kicks it off a skyscraper.

It follows fourteen year old foster kid Billy Batson, who finds he can instantly transform into a fully-grown, practically invincible superhero when he says the magic word “Shazam!”

Comic aficionados will have heard of this lightning-fingered crusader as he first appeared in 1940s as Captain Marvel.

He’s undergone several name changes since – Captain Thunder, Marvelman – which becomes a running joke in the film, with characters referring to him as everything from “Red Cyclone” to “Captain Sparklefingers”.

Comics publisher DC finally settled on Shazam! after buying the rights in the 1970s, and it’s just as well, because Brie Larson’s Marvel-owned Captain Marvel sure as hell isn’t backing down to any dude.

Just so you can gauge the level of camp menace, he stomps into the children’s foster home and declares it ‘a shithole’.

Abandoned by his mother and forced to live in a nauseatingly happy foster home in Philadelphia, Billy is unexpectedly transported to a wizard’s lair. Tired of looking for someone pure of heart to be his champion on earth, the wizard decides Billy will do just fine.

A good chunk of the film is given over to Billy’s joyous discovery of his newfound powers and ultra-buff man body; it’s great fun, especially for film and comic nerds able to spot the references to titles as diverse as Batman and Big.

Our guide in all this is Freddy, Billy’s disabled foster brother, a comic nerd played with bags of charisma by Jack Dylan Grazer. Mark Strong is excellent – as usual – as villain Sivana, a rejected champion who struts around with the seven deadly sins manifested as gargoyles. Just so you can gauge the level of camp menace, he stomps into the children’s foster home and declares it ‘a shithole’.

The obligatory final fight sequence is overlong and a little tedious but the rest feels refreshingly straightforward, unburdened with superhero lore and the weight of expectation. Most importantly, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all.

Like a teen-friendly Deadpool, Shazam!’s tongue is firmly in cheek, but its heart is in the right place.