A Joyful Throwback to a Time When Being a Superhero was Fun.
About the Film
More superhero movies will be released in 2019 than any other year in history (not to mention the dozens of current superhero/comic book TV shows). Too often the movies feel like just a different coat of paint slapped onto the same vehicle. Shazam! follows many of these expected superhero tropes, but in such a playful, self-aware, and fun way that it is a welcome breath of fresh air in the increasingly stagnant genre.
All kids dream of becoming a superhero. Shazam! is the wacky story of what would happen if that dream came true. Billy, a troubled 14-year old foster kid in Philadelphia, is given the power by an ancient wizard (as I said, it’s wacky) to instantly transform into a powerful adult superhero just by saying, “Shazam!” The film walks the line between child-like wonder and juvenile immaturity, but ultimately lands on the side of the former. This is the most fun I’ve had with a superhero movie in a long time.
On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).
There are a dozen or so minor profanities (mostly words starting with S—), as well as a handful of crude words. There are two scenes involving a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ seen only briefly from the outside and played for laughs. While most of the action is the typical cartoonish superhero fare, there are two scenes that I found jarringly violent (the director does come from a horror background, after all). The scenes are mostly suggestive and not displayed on-screen (there’s no blood or gore), but death is treated flippantly and they might be too much for some younger viewers. In a more serious film the scenes would be tame, but they stand out due to the film’s otherwise lighthearted tone.
Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
- A Return to Optimism
Comic-Book junkies know that superhero stories have always dealt with mature and complex themes. The first wave of superhero movies, however, were campy and simple. The heroes represented an unattainable ideal for us to admire. As the genre became more mainstream and society became more disenfranchised with unattainable ideals, the on-screen heroes became more nuanced. Rather than inspiring viewers to elevate themselves to the level of the hero, the heroes were dragged down to our level with a greater emphasis on their flawed and conflicted natures. This has led to several outstanding character studies (see The Dark Knight), but has also sucked some of the previous joy and wonder out of the stories. Heroism is now a great burden and chore; a curse not a blessing.
Shazam! is a throwback to a simpler time. The film injects that lost joy back into the genre. Being a hero is not just an unbearable weight, it’s a blast! The movie’s main story gimmick (a 14-year-old boy in the body of adult superhero) is the perfect playground for this. Rather than asking viewers, “do you have what it takes to be a burdened and self-sacrificial hero?”, Shazam! asks, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to fly and shoot laser-beams from your eyes!?” After all, these are the types of questions that likely led so most of us to wear a Batman cape and Superman underwear as children.
2. The Importance of Family and Belonging
The highlight of the film is the quirky but relatable foster family that Billy is taken into. There is so much warmth and heart in these scenes that I was actually disappointed when the story would shift away from the family and back to the superhero shenanigans. I didn’t even notice until after I left the theater that there is no romance or love-interests in the movie. Instead, the story’s main theme and focus is the love of family. This is such a fantastic and unexpected change of pace. In many ways, it’s also a picture of the Church. This is not a religious movie by any means, although the foster parents (both wonderfully portrayed), pray before meals and embody a Christ-like spirit. However, the story is about the importance of finding belonging, acceptance, and identity in a family, even in (perhaps especially in) the absence of a biological family. That’s certainty a message Christians can and should get behind.
The theme of acceptance could easily have become preachy and heavy-handed. The foster kids cover a range of different ethnicities and an off-hand comment suggests that one of the boys is gay. Thankfully, the film avoids this common trap. Rather than overtly telling viewers about the importance of diversity and representation, the movie organically shows the value and power of these values. In our current Hollywood culture where actors and actresses preach this sermon ad nauseam, this is a refreshing approach. In fact, this is the strength of the movie overall. The themes and messages are neither novel nor particularly deep. You won’t leave the theater pondering deep truths or searching the depth of your soul. Instead, Shazam! makes you feel these simple themes and sends you from the theater, not rethinking life, but uplifted and rejuvenated to live it.
3. Heroes are Grown not Found
In a way, Shazam! is the reverse of Captain America’s story. Steve Rodgers (aka. Captain America) is a scrawny kid with a hero’s heart that is rewarded with a superhero’s body to match. In Shazam!, the ancient wizard looks far and wide to find someone worthy and pure of heart to pass his powers on to —but he can’t find anyone. Thus, in desperation, the power is given to Billy. Rather than being given a body to match his noble character, Billy must grow a noble character to match his new body and abilities. In many ways, this is a more powerful and relatable story. Heroes are not found, they are grown. Nobody starts as a hero, but all have the ability to become one.
Will people still be thinking and talking about Shazam! in a month or two? Probably not. This is not a great triumph of cinematic storytelling—but it’s fun. Really fun. If you aren’t grinning or chuckling as you watch, then you might need to reexamine your hardened heart! The movie is ridiculous and childish, but with everything happening in our world today, a 2-hour dose of unabashed fun might be the medicine we need. Being a superhero is fun again and, if you ask me, it’s about time.
Go see it (as long as the “on the surface” content isn’t too much for your sensibilities). I’m not sure I’d take a kid under 10ish, although, if they’ve seen and enjoyed any Marvel movie, then they’ll be okay here too.