At the Cinemark


Grade: B+

Card-carrying members of DC Comics judge films by how well they fit into the DC Universe. Those hardcore fans know every character and remember every detail from all previous tales.

Although I have friends who live in that universe, I do not. When I attend superhero movies what I want is much different: I want to meet some people I can care about and who will learn something about themselves. I want a standalone story I can enjoy, not one loaded with untranslated references to previous episodes involving these characters.

I don’t mind a touch of fantasy, and even some action, but if there aren’t beating hearts and inquiring minds, I grow bored, quickly.

“Shazam” passed my test often enough to keep me absorbed and smiling most of the way.

“Shazam” won me over when I figured out that this band of superheroes were going to be foster kids. These are kids who have been tossed around a lot in life, but who finally found a loving foster home.

Thanks to some super-parenting, they now have a chance to become super-kids.

What a beautiful metaphor to endow lost kids with superpowers, as a symbol of what a loving home can do for children. It’s sort of like plucking the Artful Dodger from Charles Dickens’ London and watching him head to college.

The story is quite predictable. Ask strangers to guess the content of “Shazam” and they might well say: Does magic happen when a kid says “Shazam?”

Yes, precisely. That magic word, like “abracadabra” or “a la peanut butter sandwiches,” can transform an ordinary wannabe into an extraordinary wizard. What’s more, it turns kids into adults! Beam me up, Scotty.

In this case, the wizard aka superhero, is Billy, 14, whose mother abandoned him. He’s bounced around from foster home to foster home, never bonding and always wanting to escape so he can search for mom.

Billy’s latest home, however, knows how to handle adolescent angst. The foster parents see the good in all their foster kids, and employ a combination of tough love and warm wit.

They handle the kids with a touch of martial arts wisdom -- using the kids own moods and energy against them. Foster dad lets them come at him with their adolescent attitude, and then deftly flips their mood on its head.

The superhero shenanigans that surround Billy Batson start with an old wizard looking for an heir. Next we add the formula villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played by Mark Strong who is Stanley Tucci’s doppelganger. (I thought Sivana WAS Tucci until the credits startled me.)

If anybody cares, Shazam is apparently an acronym for “six heroes of antiquity” -- Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

The villainous nonsense comes close, at times, to derailing the film, but just when the clichés threaten to bury us under a dump truck of sound and fury, back come the kids to save the day. It’s late in the film when Billy anoints his foster siblings with their new powers.

One of the foster kids deserves special applause. Faithe Herman steals every scene as the 11-year-old Darla. She’s adorable, smart and tough. She’s the second young girl in recent films deserving of a superhero movie of her own.

Akira Akbar, 11, from “Captain Marvel” should link arms with Faithe Herman, 11, from “Shazam” and conquer the world. Both young actresses have appeared on the TV show “This is Us.”

I’m tiring of the Hollywood superhero factory that’s churning out formula films for box office.

Fortunately, some chapters in this franchise, manage to slow down long enough to give us something new, or a character to care about.

“Shazam” has no Oscars in its future, but is saved by a band of fabulous foster kids.

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