Pedantic genre fans probably have told you already about the convoluted publishing history of the protagonist of David F. Sandberg's film and how another film's title should have been his. I'll limit myself to telling you that once upon a time, long long ago, the dude in the red costume with the lightning bolt was the most popular of all superheroes, but what to do with him in modern times has challenged DC Comics, his current publisher, for nearly half a century. There's been an effort to have it both ways with "the big red cheese," preserving him as an embodiment of a more innocent era of comics publishing and fandom, in part because co-creator C.C. Beck was a reactionary when it came to modernizing superheroes, but at the same time making him something of a laughingstock precisely for being the innocent among heroes. The occasional efforts to make him and his stories more complex generally haven't gone well. The default approach has been to treat him as a child in a super-adult body, sometimes emphasizing a seeming-inevitable naivete but more recently taking him in an arguably more sophomoric direction. Add to this Hollywood's preoccupation with the zero-to-hero paradigm and movie writers' own consensus on how a boy in a man's body would behave and Shazam! could have written itself with little significant input from credited screenwriter Henry Gayden.
Fortunately, the filmmakers gathered together a decent cast of child actors in support of a luckily likable Zachary Levi as the learning-on-the-fly (or learning-to-fly) hero who now takes the name of the old wizard (Djimon Honsou) who, as of old, empowers him. To be more exact, old Shazam empowers, as of old, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), the archetypal orphan who's just landed in a group home alongside his traditional playmates Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton) and a bunch of other kids recently introduced in the comics. We're given to understand that the old wizard has to be less choosy than he'd like, since one of the kids he rejected 45 years ago has grown up to be Mark Strong calling himself Dr. Sivana. Maybe twice the size of the hero's comics arch-enemy, the movie Sivana has used tremendous corporate resources, and presumably some mad scientist know-how, to find his way back to the old wizard's stop on the subway and claim the powers offered him long ago (i.e. at the start of the picture) by the monsters known as the Seven Deadly Sins. The old wizard has wanted a champion pure of heart but will settle for the sullen, rebellious Batson before breathing his last.
Barely conscious of his purpose, the magically-roided up Batson goes about discovering his powers, trying out different names and performing acts of petty heroism as the film becomes something like a cross between Chronicle and The Tick. In recent comics the hero has been somewhat successfully reimagined as a bit of a smartass dork, but Levi's performance leans heavily sometimes in the direction of the typical Hollywood infantile man. That's okay, though, because the point of the picture is for him, unlike the typical Hollywood infantile man, to grow out of that mode. He does this by learning to love his new extended family while leaving behind the ideal of his real mother that made every other option seem inadequate to him. It's ironic, once you actually see Shazam!, to see some people call it Spielbergian, since it actually refrains from idealizing its mother figure in favor of a "love the ones you're with" message. It's a practical message, too, since its corollary is that there's strength in numbers. The film follows current comics most closely in its conceit that all of Billy's surrogate siblings are eligible to partake of the Shazam power and thus help him fight off Sivana and the Deadly Sins. The kids are hit-or-miss as characters and their hero-forms get even less time to introduce themselves, but their innocent joy in getting superpowers -- please never let any of them go to the dark side, producers! -- is infectious. Unfortunately, they also make the climax a bit too busy and lengthy, and the action scenes here were never going to break new ground. The best super-stunt comes much earlier, when Billy has to figure out how to deal with a bus falling off an overpass, and then has to figure out how to put it down safely when there's a dog in the way. The filmmakers have a nice habit of throwing in little details like that or the increasingly frantic Santa Claus who keeps getting caught in the middle of the super-battles. Sandberg shows an admirable eye for the absurd that helps lighten the tone throughout; you have to like a film that will move into a crowd celebration for a close-up of a dancing gingerbread man. Overall, Shazam! is the sort of film that you can tell means well even when it doesn't always work, and it's hard to hold its misses against it when it hits often enough to be unpretentious fun.