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Shazam! ***

by Ruben Rosario

A cheeky throwback to a time when costumed do-gooder movies were less concerned with slavish adherence to their source material than in delivering thrills with cross-generational appeal, this winsome, frequently funny origin tale reconfigures the superhero experience as family group therapy. The strategy works like a charm, at least until yet another overlong climax somewhat dampens the fun. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

There's a dispiriting sense of duty in most superhero movies coming out nowadays. An obligation, if you will, to make sure a particular entry fulfills expectations, both for fans of the comic books they're based on and moviegoers conditioned to judge the merits of said work by how well it's woven into the larger fabric of a shared cinematic universe. More often than not, the end result receives a coveted $eal of approval from its target audiences, but in the process stamps out the very qualities that would make it stand out from the rest.

In terms of content, “Shazam!” is not in any hurry to rock the boat. It's recognizably set in the DC Extended Universe, the Warner Bros.-financed shingle that released “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” to boffo box office and widespread derision. (Me? I rather liked Zack Snyder's ambitious grimdark take on DC Comics' iconic big guns, and this is coming from a “Man of Steel” detractor.) It also follows the shopworn beats of an origin story. You know the drill: an obstacle course for the protagonist to find the hero within.

But for most of its two-hour-plus running time (way too long, but we'll get to that), “Shazam!” avoids feeling like a tired retread. It's an effervescent genre entry that's not afraid to indulge in the irreverent silliness that drew so many of us to comic books in the first place. It also manages to balance its fantastical elements with coming-of-age concerns that hone in on abandonment issues, loneliness and the replenishing bond of family, even if those ties are not biological.

Our eventual super is not even an adult. Philly-area 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has bolted from one foster home to another as he continues to search for the mother from whom he became separated as a child. His latest brush with the law lands him in Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez's (Marta Milans) multicultural group home. His bunkmate, disabled superhero fiend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), regales him with Superman and Batman trivia, thus laying the foundation for a friendship that blossoms, albeit mostly out of necessity, after an act of selflessness involving Freddy, school bullies and an ensuing foot chase (shades of “The Neverending Story”) takes Billy into the cavernous dwelling of an aging wizard (Djimon Hounsou, glowering beneath a frightful wig) who bestows his supernatural abilities on him. That transfer gives Billy the appearance of his grown-up self, embodied in these scenes by the charismatic Zachary Levi, as well as an unapologetically dorky costume that, to this '80s kid, brought back memories of the TV show “The Greatest American Hero.”

Director David F. Sandberg (“Annabelle: Creation”), working from a screenplay by Henry Gayden, wisely refrains from adding too many narrative wrinkles to Billy's journey of self-discovery, the better for him to revel in his newfound powers. The filmmakers hit the sweet spot when they simply allow the character to discover what his body is now capable of, while also devoting screen time to his jovial foster parents and siblings. They also mine considerable comic mileage from the rejected superhero names the boys go through. There's a villain lurking in the shadows, the power-hungry Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (repeat uber-baddie Mark Strong), who's also given his own backstory. It pays off quite nicely in a sequence that allows Sandberg the chance to flex his horror muscles.

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But despite the capably staged action and unruly mayhem, “Shazam!” is at its strongest when it's about a bunch of kids being themselves, with all their imperfections, hangups and insecurities. In other words, “Shazam!” often settles for being “Big” on steroid-infused happy pills, opting to keep the world-building on an intimate, personal scale. Ironically enough, those self-imposed limits prevent it from being bogged down in the kind of wordy exposition that marred James Wan's otherwise enjoyable “Aquaman.” After taking some stumbles along the way, it appears that the DCEU is willing to learn from its past mistakes, the biggest one, at least to me, is trying to ape the Marvel Cinematic Universe's template. With “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and now this smirk-inducing charmer, they are finding their footing by mostly taking it one hero at a time.

Sure, the same can be argued of Ruben Fleischer's “Venom,” but that ugly-looking turd played like table scraps of its late '90s and early '00s influences, arguably one of the reasons why it took off at the global box office. More so than other recent superhero films, “Shazam!” harks back to a time when the genre was unencumbered by shared universe housekeeping. It owes a significant debt to Sam Raimi's dizzying visual panache and kid-centric box office hits from the '80s. And yet it feels like Sandberg is marching to the beat of his own drum, imbuing the juvenile humor with genuine warmth. It's enough to carry over this adventure over familiar territory, without tumbling down the pop-culture rabbit hole that would have taken the movie into “Deadpool”-for-kids territory. This is as far removed as it gets from that other Philadelphia-based superhero universe, the one M. Night Shyamalan recently wrapped up in his underrated, much-maligned “Glass.”

Alas, “Shazam!” winds its way to a climactic encounter of good versus evil, and it's here where the pixie dust begins to wear off. Content to sidestep event-movie bloat prior to this third-act flourish, Sandberg sees it fit to stage an elaborate and prolonged confrontation that might have looked good in the storyboarding stages, but on screen, it threatens to derail what had up to this point been a judiciously paced narrative. It's a testament of the cast's easygoing chemistry that despite the protracted clashes, we never lose empathy for them.

“Shazam!” overcomes its bulky and lopsided finale because it repeatedly earns our goodwill. Whereas some of its competitors feel like a cog in an endlessly churning machine, this one feels pretty complete on its own. And that's worth celebrating.

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