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The recent levity in the DC Universe films is certainly a good thing. After the successful and entertaining Wonder Woman and Aquaman comes Shazam!, a lower key but perhaps more satisfying superhero film. Based on the DC Comics character created in 1939 by C. C. Beck and Bill Parker that was originally named Captain Marvel, Shazam! sees foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) struggling to find his identity after being bounced around from family to family. After saving his foster brother, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), from school bullies, Billy is summoned by wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who is looking for a new, pure-hearted champion to take over his post. He instills in Billy all of his powers, which manifest after Billy calls the wizard's name aloud and include the ability to repel bullets, fly and manipulate electricity. The transformation also turns Billy into adult Shazam (Zachary Levi), who dons a cape and slick red and yellow costume.
The newly christened Shazam gets to work doing good around Philadelphia, which draws the attention of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a physicist shunned by his wealthy family. As a child, Sivana was summoned by the wizard but deemed unworthy to inherit his powers after being tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins, powerful demons contained within statues in the wizard's lair, the Rock of Eternity. The adult Sivana discovers a way to return to the lair, and steals the Eye of Sin, allowing him to become a vessel for the demons, which he takes back to Philadelphia to use nefariously. Sivana discovers Shazam's true identity, and looks to use vulnerable Freddy and fellow foster siblings Mary (Grace Fulton), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Eugene (Ian Chen) and Darla (Faithe Herman) to wound his new nemesis and claim his powers.
The film's best assets are its lighthearted screenplay from Henry Gayden and sense of fun, embraced fully by Levi in the lead role. So many of the DC Universe films have suffered from bombastic screenplays, overly grim narratives and plodding storylines, but director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) keeps Shazam! nimble and funny. The filmmakers are not worried about this being the biggest, most ambitious superhero movie of the year. Instead, the action remains focused on a few core characters, and CGI effects, action sequences and world hopping are used in effective moderation. Both Levi and Angel give their combined character heart and charm, and the supporting cast is effectively interspersed in the story.
My only real complaint with Shazam! is that it suffers from the typical exposition onslaught of an origin story. In the included bonus materials and deleted scenes, Sandberg reveals working to pare down the opening act, which still feels long. Once the present-day story kicks into high gear, Shazam! finds its true groove, and Levy and Strong are able to play against each other's strengths. Strong is effective here, too, and the film does a nice job crafting a villain that is menacing but still fits within its overall tone. Shazam! is a welcome interruption from better known, weightier DC Universe films, and I look forward to the title character returning to the screen in the expected sequel.
The 2.39:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is crisp, clean and highly detailed throughout. This digitally sourced transfer offers excellent fine-object detail and abundant texture, from the folds of Shazam's costume to the bustling streets of Philadelphia. Colors are bold and nicely saturated, and black levels are strong. Shadow detail is good, the image looks great in motion, and compression artifacts and digital tinkering are not an issue.
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, is also excellent. The track is boisterous, perfectly balanced and totally immersive. Action effects like an early car crash call upon the subwoofer for heavy support, and the frequent action effects pan the entire sound field. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the score and soundtrack selections are given appropriate heft. English, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and an HD digital copy. The discs are packed into an eco-case that is wrapped in a lenticular slipcover with its own unique artwork. The bonus features are surprisingly worthwhile, and offer better-than-average on-set footage. The Magical World of Shazam (26:56/HD) is the disc's production featurette, and it offers solid interviews and a look at filming on location. Super Fun Zac (3:13/HD) sees the actor having fun on set. There are a slew of Deleted and Alternate Scenes (37:27 total/HD) with director introductions. You also get a Gag Reel (3:16/HD); Who is Shazam? (5:42/HD), about the character's history; Carnival Scene Study (10:22/HD), a breakdown of the climactic battle; Shazamily Values (6:06/HD), about the film's child actors; and Superhero Hooky (4:05/HD), a motion comic.
The DC Universe films have been hit or miss, but Shazam! is a refreshingly lighthearted and fun project that is buoyed by a game Zachary Levi in the title role. Warner's Blu-ray offers excellent picture and sound and some solid bonus materials. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.