Credit: Steve Wilkie/© DC Comics

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m old enough to remember watching the corny Saturday morning Shazam! TV show. This was back in the ’70s, when superheroes were still considered kids’ stuff and not the precious gasahol that would one day keep the 21st-century entertainment-industrial complex humming and belching out money.

The show was pretty laughable, but it did contain the germ of an idea that was like catnip to any pint-size layabout with nothing but time to kill. Namely, what would it be like to spend your days as an awkward teenager knowing that deep down, you possessed a secret second identity you could summon by saying one silly word, and poof, become a musclebound grown-up in gold booties, red spandex, and a white cape who could fly, right wrongs, and kick all sorts of bad-guy ass? It was the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy, packaged in a disposable wrapper.

This may prompt angry emails, but here it goes anyway: Shazam has always been a third-tier superhero, in my opinion. Then again, a year ago I would have said the same thing about Aquaman, and look what happened to him. These days, even the bottom of the barrel can be strip-mined for gold, it seems. Which brings us to DC’s new and mostly improved Shazam 2.0. Written by Henry Gayden and directed by Annabelle: Creation’s David F. Sandberg, Shazam! is a lot jokier and zippier than the spandex tentpoles we’ve come to expect from DC’s often-lugubrious stable of cinematic superheroes. The credit for that almost entirely goes to Zachary Levi (Chuck), who plays the title character with an infectiously naïve, gee-whiz charisma that calls to mind Tom Hanks in Big more than anything.

Whenever Levi is on screen, wowed by his new grown-up physique (his muscles seem to have muscles) and shocked by his newly discovered powers (living lightning zaps from his fingertips), the movie soars. It’s like watching the best scenes in the Spider-Man movies, when Peter Parker first discovers he can shoot webs and turn the city into his personal slingshot tumble jungle. The problem is that those scenes — as giddy and full of youthful, caffeinated energy as they are — aren’t enough in the modern blockbuster way of doing things. You can’t just have Shazam! be a movie about Billy Batson, a streetwise 14-year-old foster kid (played by former Disney Channel star Asher Angel), and his mighty alter ego. It also has to be, well, “a superhero movie,” with a stock villain, some random wizard, a glowing whatzit MacGuffin, and a menagerie of CGI monsters that look like they weren’t good enough to make the cut in the original Ghostbusters.

All of that pro forma nonsense is, I guess, as compulsory in a movie like this as the soft-drink tie-ins and post-credits stingers. There’s so much money and ledger-book hopes and dreams riding on these things for the studios that all bets have to be hedged a million times over. All of that mandatory genre junk weighs Levi’s lighter-than-air scenes down like a steel anchor. But I suppose if you must cast a cardboard villain, you could do a lot worse than Mark Strong, who plays the nefarious, power-mad Dr. Thaddeus Sivana — a mustache-less mustache-twirler fueled by daddy issues and a will to power.

Shazam! is basically two movies in one. One with Levi and his wiseass foster brother (a fresh Jack Dylan Grazer), the other with Strong and all his snarling, computer-generated gobbledygook. And they both have the other in a headlock, wrestling for the soul of the story. I loved one, yawned through the other. It’s hard to be original when you want to be all things to every fanboy and girl, so the movie can’t help but feel like a bit of a compromise, a draw. What it should have done, had it not been so afraid of stepping outside of the parameters of the genre, is to have Strong’s Sivana take two steps back and push Levi two steps forward. It is called Shazam!, after all. Why not let the guy and his glowing lightning bolt shine? B

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Shazam! (2019 Movie)
David F. Sandberg's superhero movie is a lot jokier and zippier than the spandex tentpoles we've come to expect from DC.
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