Few superheroes have needed a lawyer more than the original Captain Marvel. Once sued into oblivion for being too similar to Superman, Captain Marvel long ago lost his name to the new Marvel Comics character who made its big-screen debut last month as a female Kree warrior. Since the 1970s, Captain Marvel has been referred to by the magic word Shazam that conjures an adult superhero from the form of a boy.
And so now, this first superhero ever to appear in live action (in the 1941 serial "The Adventures of Captain Marvel") returns 78 years later to a big-screen starring role in "Shazam!," where he enters into the same cinematic universe as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Aquaman. Played by Zachary Levi, Shazam is the magically adult form bestowed on 14-year-old foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel) by an ailing wizard also named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The older Shazam — last of the Council of the Wizards, keeper of the Rock of Eternity — needs someone "strong in spirit, pure in heart" to assume the mantel.
The old wizard passes over young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) in 1974, but the boy remains obsessed with the great power that escaped him. Grown into his 50s, the present-day Sivana (Mark Strong) keeps a watchful eye for the power of Shazam, but settles for the power of the Seven Deadly Sins (embodied in terrifying carnivorous beasts, the Sins are responsible for one very scary sequence that may have kids peeking through their fingers). Meanwhile, young Philadelphian Batson gets the power Sivana craved for decades; that this happens more or less by default takes some of the edge off the "chosen one" conceit and ensures that Billy must retroactively earn his newfound power by boosting in himself the requisite levels of spirit and heart.
The vehicle for Billy's self-actualization turns out to be family. The boy lives in hope that he'll track down his long-lost mother, but in the meantime must acclimate to a new group home run by the kindly Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and populated by a multicultural array of amiable but distressed kids (Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, and Faithe Herman). Billy's new roomie Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer of "It") turns out to be a motormouthed superhero fanatic, just the guy to play sidekick to the befuddled new hero Shazam.
The double act of Grazer and Levi turns out to be comedy gold in this supercharged version of the 1988 fantasy "Big" (which gets a wink and a nod in one action sequence). Director David F. Sandberg ("Lights Out," "Annabelle: Creation") successfully balances dramatic stakes with the material's inherent invitation to comedy: a pubescent boy who periodically explodes into a tall, muscular man in a red super suit with a glowing lightning bolt. The origin story allows Billy to discover and test his powers (as Freddie makes YouTube videos). In an endearing change of pace for the genre, Billy's initial superheroic efforts mostly wreak havoc, and he's still fumbling big time when Sivana shows up to confront him. (This, by the way, is the splendid Strong's second crack at a DC villain, after playing Sinestro in 2011's misbegotten "Green Lantern.")
At over two hours, the film goes on a bit too long, but the setting and circumstances of the climactic action sequence have a nice thematic ring to them (Shazam enthusiasts will see the twist coming, but it's still a hoot). Essentially, "Shazam!" plays like DC's answer to Marvel's "Ant-Man": a family-friendly, comical comic-book adventure that never crosses the line into camp.
After the recent, not-so-sunny take on Superman, it's refreshing to see the DC Comics films lightening up. But holy moly! They'd better get on the certain "Shazam!" sequels before the youngsters in the cast get too big the old-fashioned way.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material. Two hours, 12 minutes.