Superhero flick ‘Shazam!’ takes its time to find the right mixture of humor and humanity.
Kernel Rating: 3.5 (3.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 132 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 9+. This film about how a wizard’s magic transforms a pure-hearted 14-year-old into a crime-fighting adult superhero includes a fair amount of violence and scary stuff. There’s an intense car accident that results in a character being paralyzed; the monsters of the film, the Seven Deadly Sins, are quite grotesque, with a lot of fangs and claws, and they eat and kill various characters; two school bullies abuse a middle-schooler, including hitting him with their car; a character gets thrown out of window more than 40 stories up; and there is a bloodless but very scary scene in which every member of a board meeting is massacred by the Sins. You don’t see much blood in the scene, but the implication is there. A character is also burned alive; lots of chase scenes; and a bus careens off an overpass. Teens and tweens are seen going into and exiting a strip club, and there are some sexually suggestive jokes; some cursing and rude language; characters steal money to buy a lot of tech gadgets; teens try beer but spit it back out.
By Roxana Hadadi
After the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced us to “Captain Marvel” earlier this spring, DC Comics offers up their own superhero origin story with “Shazam!”, a film more in line with last year’s “Aquaman” than previous, darker DC fare, like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” And “Shazam!” benefits from a lighter tone and a specific focus on a teen boy, his foster family, and his desire to find a home. The stakes aren’t quite world-endingly high but are resonant for their universality, and the film bounces well between kid-focused humor and suitably scary action sequences.
“Shazam!” sets the stage with an introductory scene that explains that real magic does exist in the world, but it is controlled by good forces, like wizards, and evil forces, as in the Seven Deadly Sins, who are personified here as grotesque ghouls and monsters. Only someone who is pure of heart can be infused with the magic needed to defeat the Sins, but for decades, that person hasn’t materialized. During a test, they’ll be offered the magic, but the power of the Seven Deadly Sins, too, and for years, every single person has picked the Sins instead, effectively ending their tryout.
But time is running out for the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to transfer his magic, and so although he is surprised that his tracking spell brings a 14-year-old to his underground lair, he accepts that perhaps the boy does have a pure heart. But Billy (Asher Angel), the young teen in question, isn’t so sure. The whole situation seems strange! Why is this man talking about wizards, magic, and Sins, and why does he put so much importance on the word “Shazam”?
Billy doesn’t have time for this. After being separated from his mother at a carnival when he was a child, he’s spent more than a decade looking for her, running away from foster homes and trying to track her down. And so between his placement with a new foster family — where a same-aged boy, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), is obsessed with superheroes and becomes Billy’s only friend — and his quest to find his mom, Billy doesn’t have much time for magical stuff. What does “Shazam” even mean?
“Shazam!” takes a while to find its footing, and the first hour or so is particularly disjointed. The film jumps between Billy, including his new foster family, his troubles at school and with the law, his burgeoning friendship with Freddy, and the antics of the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) as he works to find the Seven Deadly Sins and claim their power for his own. And it takes a while for Billy to actually transform into Shazam!, the superhero who can control electricity, possesses super-speed and super-strength, and is able to fly. As the adult superhero Shazam!, Billy is played by Zachary Levi, and once Levi is onscreen, the film livens up. He brings the right energy, a zany childishness, to the charater, and you’ll never forget that Billy and Freddy are just two teenagers caught up in the excitement of being able to do whatever they want. Strong is appropriately scary, and the film’s production design renders the Sins legitimately terrifying.
While the film hits exactly the right tone regarding Billy and Freddy’s friendship and how Billy grows to care about and feel welcomed by his foster family, “Shazam!” still makes a few choices that aren’t as inclusive as they could have been. This is most evident in a final showdown that seems to characterize individuals being able-bodied and thin as “living up to their potential,” and there’s a message there about differently abled and differently sized children that feels quite narrow. And fundamentally, “Shazam!” still follows the exact same formula as most superhero origin stories, and you’ll start to really feel its lengthy run time before the film’s final third begins.
In its best moments, though, “Shazam!” brings to mind another children’s film this year that treats tweens and young teens as their own unique group deserving their own unique stories, with age-appropriate narratives and scares: the fantastic “The Kid Who Would Be King.” Both films treat magic and myths as alluring opportunities for creativity, spookiness, and fun, and “Shazam!” is best when it prioritizes that angle of its story rather than simply following the typical superhero route.
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