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‘Shazam:’ the importance of being earnest

“Shazam” starts off like so many superhero movies: an over-the-top prologue, an average chase sequence—you get the picture. But about 15 minutes in, something changes. After getting kicked out of multiple group homes, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is given one last chance. He’s introduced to his new foster family, parents Rosa and Victor (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews), an older sister Mary (Grace Fulton), and younger siblings Darla, Eugene, Pedro and Freddy (Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand and Jack Dylan Grazer).

While Billy initially scoffs at his adoptive kin, we do not. Screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg set their high-flying story in thoughtful, emotionally-resonant territory. The movie’s sincerity becomes its secret weapon, asking the audience to invest in this non-traditional household. What do we owe to the families we aren’t born to? It works. “Shazam”—not to be confused with Shaquille O’Neal’s magnum opus “Kazaam”—succeeds because of the balance it strikes between heroic hijinks and genuinely meaningful relationships. Who would’ve guessed?

After all, this is the last place you’d expect to find such worthwhile set-up for caped antics. With the exception of “Wonder Woman,” all prior entries in the DC Extended Universe have been overblown and unnecessary, and failed to provide anything compelling beneath the chaos on-screen. So perhaps it is no surprise that “Shazam” shares more DNA with better stuff: There’s a touch of the self-referential a la “Deadpool,” filtered through the sincere tone of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy. What’s astonishing is how much this silly flick has in common with last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters,” another loving affirmation of an alternative family.

But “Shazam’s” main influence is obviously “Big”—or maybe “13 Going on 30.” See, soon after Billy gets acquainted with his new family, he’s whisked away by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and bestowed with magical powers—along with the ability to transform into the extremely likable Zachary Levi. “Shazam” is entirely effective during this middle act, before Billy comprehends the extent of his responsibility. Watching this super-powered faux-grownup sneak his brother out of school, learn the limits of his abilities and waltz around Philadelphia is a blast, even when Levi’s enthusiasm doesn’t quite mesh with Billy’s original moody exterior.

That said, by the climax Angel and Levi’s performances coalesce into a believable individual. Once the big bad (played by the ever-menacing Mark Strong) does show up, you’re almost having too much fun to care—until Sandberg and Gayden start tugging at the heartstrings again. It helps that they’ve got such an endearing supporting cast to lean on, especially the superhero-obsessed Freddy and the adorable Darla. Honestly, aside from some unconvincing visual effects, I’ve got no complaints.

A bumper-sticker on the back of Rosa and Victor’s van reads “I’m a foster parent. What’s your superpower?” Bright and bold, “Shazam” exceeds all expectations—and its peers could learn a thing or two. When superhero movies actually give us a reason to care, anything is possible.

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