DC Comics tale gets jolt from lively performances, premise

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The superhero movie gets the "Big" treatment in "Shazam!" a fresh, fun addition to the DC Comics universe, a cinematic realm in desperate need of both fresh and fun.

Zachary Levi (TV's "Chuck") is the titular superhero, but that's really simplifying matters. Shazam is really the buff, grown-up altar ego of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old foster kid.

He's granted superpowers after coming across a staff-wielding wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who grants him the gift of flight, super-strength, the ability to shoot lightning bolts out of his hands and a handful of other powers that he slowly discovers with the aid of his foster brother, Freddy ("It's" Jack Dylan Grazer). All Billy has to do is say "Shazam!" and he makes the transformation. 

"Shazam!" has a breezy comic vibe and a wide-eyed sense of adventure that's in touch with the childlike wonder of what it would be like to wake up with comic book abilities and powers. It's able to convey those feelings because screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg ("Lights Out," "Annabelle: Creation") spend time establishing Billy's character and his home life: He goes to live with five foster siblings after his latest failed attempt to track down his mother, from whom he was separated when he was a young boy.

Billy is mischievous but well-intentioned, and at his core he's an average 14-year-old. So when he acquires the ability to be both a superhero and an adult, he's equally stoked about both prospects: he's just as excited to be able to buy beer and go to strip clubs as he is about the fact that he's now impervious to bullets. 

The superhero gig is all fun and games — he becomes a tourist attraction in his hometown of Philadelphia, and posts videos testing out his newfound abilities to YouTube — until he comes across a nemesis, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who wants to crush him and take his powers. Geez, can't a guy just enjoy being a superhero without having to take on a supervillain? 

In typical DC fashion, the big showdown between Shazam and Thaddeus goes on for way too long — the film could have easily shaved 20 minutes off of its 132-minute run-time — and relies too heavily on CGI monsters that look like leftovers from a video game movie. But Thaddeus is the most formidable foe DC has given us yet, thanks to Strong's, er, strong characterization, and the way he makes him equally powerful, menacing and able to be goofed on. (He could have done with about half of the line readings where he whips his sunglasses off mid-sentence and allows the camera to focus on his glowing blue eyeball, however.)

Levi, meanwhile, is all giddiness and outward joy; he's like if Jimmy Fallon had a cape. And the connection he builds with Grazer resonates deeper than typical comic book character relationships. "Shazam!" is a superhero story that's rooted in a tale of family. It's able to fly because it's so grounded. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Shazam!'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13: for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material

Running time: 132 minutes

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