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'Shazam!' Brings A Lighter Film To The DC Cinematic Universe


Movie superheroes come in two basic varieties, Marvel and DC. For a while, Marvel has had a lighter touch, but DC, which went all dark and gritty with "Batman," has been finding a bit more humor lately. Now with "Shazam!," critic Bob Mondello says the DC Universe can finally claim to be actual fun.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Years of being mired in gloom and grit - and it turns out all it took was a little magic to brighten the mood...


ASHER ANGEL: (As Billy Batson) Shazam.

MONDELLO: ...Not that you'll guess from the first few minutes of "Shazam!," an origin story that starts with its villain's origin story, then abandons a toddler in an amusement park by way of setting up its plot. It's like the folks at DC have a death wish. Happily there's a kid on hand to establish there's method to their madness.


JACK DYLAN GRAZER: (As Freddy Freeman) It gets real "Game Of Thrones" around here. Dude, just messing around. You look at me, and you're like, why so dark? You're a disabled foster kid. You've got it all.

MONDELLO: That's Freddy welcoming Billy Batson, a perpetual runaway, into his foster family. Billy is a handful and will shortly run away again, this time chased by high school bullies onto a subway that takes him to someplace not Philadelphia...


ANGEL: (As Billy Batson) Hello.

MONDELLO: ...Someplace with a wizard.


DJIMON HOUNSOU: (As The Wizard) Say my name so my powers may flow through you.

ANGEL: (As Billy Batson) But I don't know your name, Sir.

HOUNSOU: (As The Wizard) Shazam.

ANGEL: (As Billy Batson, laughter) Are you for real?

HOUNSOU: (As The Wizard) Say it.

ANGEL: (As Billy Batson) OK, Shazam.

MONDELLO: And suddenly Billy is not 14 anymore. He's an adult with a deep voice, an electrified lightning bolt on his suddenly massive chest and no idea what to do next. So he turns to an understandably skeptical...


ZACHARY LEVI: (As Shazam) Oh, thank God.

MONDELLO: ...Freddy.


GRAZER: (As Freddy Freeman) Hey, stop right there. How do I know you're not a supervillain using telepathic abilities to make me believe that you're Billy?

MONDELLO: You try batting that away. Freddy takes some convincing, but once he's sold, he's sold.


GRAZER: (As Freddy Freeman) What are your superpowers?

LEVI: (As Shazam) Super powers - dude, I don't even know how to pee in this thing.

MONDELLO: So they decide to test things, like whether super-Billy can fly.


MONDELLO: Evidently not.


GRAZER: (As Freddy Freeman) You want to try invisibility?

MONDELLO: Also not, but they discover he can shoot Zeus-like thunderbolts from his hands.


GRAZER: (As Freddy Freeman) Oh, my God, the lightning emblem - it was starting us right in the face the whole time.

LEVI: (As Shazam) Literally.

MONDELLO: Director David F. Sandberg makes their delight as they discover all of this contagious. It's as if he's corralled kids from early Spielberg to make a boy-in-a-man's-body movie, "Big" with superpowers.


MONDELLO: And it works on quite a few levels. The kid's concerned with the important stuff...


GRAZER: (As Freddy Freeman) You have bullet immunity.

MONDELLO: ...While Zachary Levi channels childlike innocence as he battles a bad guy who has all seven deadly sins on his side.


MARK STRONG: (As Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) Give me your power, or die.

LEVI: (As Shazam) Oh, snap. You're, like, a bad guy, right? OK, OK, OK, OK, look; before this gets really stupid for you, you should know that I'm basically invincible, so...

MONDELLO: Not so invincible. With our hero morphing back and forth from teen to adult and everyone having to resolve mommy, daddy or foster family issues, the film overstays its welcome a bit at two-plus hours, especially when they get to one of those overblown finales where the screenwriter just hands things over to the effects team for 20 minutes.

Still, "Shazam!" gets more things right than most about family, about disability, about the sheer joy that comic books used to have before every story had to be about the fate of the world or, heaven help us, the universe. And the running gag about what to call the hero...


GRAZER: (As Freddy Freeman) His name is Captain Sparkle Fingers.

MONDELLO: ...Is funny even if you don't know that for most of the comic book character's 80-year history, he was known as Captain Marvel - problematic branding for DC, clearly. Though by pretty much any name, this "Shazam!" is a hoot. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.