Chosen by an ancient wizard to become a mystical champion, teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) transforms into Shazam (Zachary Levi), a superhero gifted with incredible powers. Of course, he's still a teenager underneath it all, and when a supervillain (Mark Strong) seeks the same power, he'll have to grow up sooner than expected.
Compared to the offerings from Marvel, the DC Universe - that's Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman et al - has always struggled with tone. 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice', for example, seemed to be caught between a grimdark version of the brightly coloured superheroes of the past. 'Suicide Squad' was chopped to pieces and resembled a mismatch of ideas, none of which coalesced into anything worth watching. With 'Wonder Woman' and 'Aquaman', the sense was that a course correction was in place, and an understanding of what made these characters began to take hold. With 'Shazam!', the correction is complete and what sits on screen is an enjoyable, humourous and surprisingly smart take on superhero mythology.
For one, David F. Sandberg's direction and the script by Henry Gayden seems to actively acknowledge that there's something inherently goofy in superheroes generally. The superhero has always been a power fantasy, and with 'Shazam!', it's made literal. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster child with no remarkable skills, is chosen to become a champion as a last resort, and uses his powers - initially, anyway - to buy beer (which he realises is disgusting) and then tries to get into a strip-club (which he doesn't fully understand). Not only is this smart from a storytelling perspective, it's also what any teenager would likely do if they suddenly found themselves in that situation.
Selling that believably is something Zachary Levi - as the fully-grown, fully-realised Shazam / Billy Batson - catches easily and, yes, there are overt references to Penny Marshall's 'Big' throughout the movie. Levi's performance captures not only the innocence, but how frustrating it can be to potential squandered for the easy path. That's something that a lot of teenager-centred movies never really get right, but 'Shazam!' manages to grasp and make it into something smart, if not wholly original. As well as this, the interplay between Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer, as the wise-cracking Freddy, gives out some of the biggest laughs of the movie.
The action, when it does occur, isn't of the city-destroying variety that so often plagues comic-book movies. You have the CGI, the electrical sparks and so on, but what makes 'Shazam!' soar is the comedy and the intelligence of how it handles the general concept of the movie. Keeping the tone light when it needs, making it darker when it has to; it's a fine balance to walk and can so often veer too heavily into one or the other without a strong grip on the story and what the movie is about. Thankfully, the direction from David F. Sandberg is confident and assured, as demonstrated in his previous works.
Funny and knowing, smart and not overly sentimental, 'Shazam!' is a spark-filled comedy adventure with easy laughs and knowing nods to the comic-book genre.