Film review: Shazam!

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, April 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews the latest installment in the already crowded but ever-popular superhero genre.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: The latest DC movie, Shazam, topped the box office last week. Many reviews called it a winsome throwback to some of the most beloved films of the 1980s. The New York Times and Slate compared it favorably to the Tom Hanks classic Big. The Atlantic called it “right out of the Spielberg playbook of rollicking genre adventures.” Forbes echoed that sentiment, saying, “This is what we would have gotten if Spielberg had made a superhero movie.”

Given the nearly universal praise, not to mention an especially kid-friendly premise, it’s understandable that parents might think Shazam is perfect for introducing younger viewers to live-action superhero movies. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

That’s not to say Shazam isn’t delightful in many ways. It is, and elements of it will especially appeal to Christian audiences. As an origin story, it’s hard to find one more engaging than that of 15-year-old Billy Batson. A juvenile delinquent slogging his way through the Philadelphia foster care system, Billy is lucky enough to land with Victor and Rosa Vasquez.  

CLIP: Darla, it’s me. It’s Billy. I know I don’t look like me. A wizard made me look like this. Maybe don’t start with a wizard. That’s just going to make her more confused. Some old guy brought me to a temple and he made me say Shazam. Listen to me, Darla, you cannot tell anybody about this, alright? But it’s Billy. He’s a hero. Yeah, but if a super villain finds out that he’s a hero, that endangers us. A hero’s loved ones are like the perfect bad guy target.

Once wards of the state themselves, Victor and Rosa have a special heart for hard-to-place cases. Though they already have five foster kids to care for, including the smart-alecky, physically disabled Freddy, they’re patient and loving with Billy. But even their forbearance is tested when, unbeknownst to them, Billy becomes a secret superhero inhabiting a grown man’s body. Not surprisingly, his behavior grows increasingly erratic.

Even the most superhero-fatigued critic (cough, cough) can’t fail to grin at scenes where Billy, with Freddy as his coach, learns to use his powers.

CLIP: How do we do this? Just like Superman it. Phew! Phew. Obviously you have to jump. C’mon! How is that obvious? Try to believe that you can fly. I read this deep dive into peer-reviewed super powers and in six out of 10, belief is the key. Belief, belief, belief. Okay. I believe I can fly. I believe I can fly. Did you believe? Yeah. Do you want to try invisibility?

Actor Zachary Levi (best known as the voice of Flynn Rider from Tangled and the NBC series, Chuck) is perfectly cast as an overgrown adolescent drunk on his newfound manly physique and supernatural abilities.    

After noting that beer tastes like vomit, he and Freddy overdose on an all-night soda and junk-food binge. Then they make a series of viral YouTube videos showing off Billy’s ability to deflect bullets with his chest and almost leap tall buildings in a single bound. One of the most hilarious scenes features Billy panhandling downtown. He shows off his lightning hands for the few coins passersby are willing to drop in his empty guitar case. You can just imagine how stoked Billy and Freddy are to discover people will pay to take selfies with a real live superhero.

CLIP: Do you want an autograph or something!? Give me your power… or die. Oh snap! You’re like a bad guy, right? Okay, okay. Look, before this gets really stupid for you, you should know that I’m basically invincible.

The movie offers strong heart as well as big laughs. Even better than featuring a loving foster family, Shazam suggests Victor and Rosa are spiritual leaders to their children as well. Their dinner time prayers may be informal, but it’s something of a minor miracle that they’re depicted at all. The story does less with a bad guy who employs anthropomorphized versions of the seven deadly sins. They function as little more than monsters and aren’t particularly differentiated from one another, let alone specific to the moral failing they’re supposed to represent. But it is refreshing that Billy’s resolve to resist the temptation they present is his main qualification for becoming Shazam.

Unfortunately, the price of admission comes with some PG-13 caveats. Inexplicably, Shazam rates fairly high on the profanity meter. Why would a movie that seems tailor-made to appeal to kids contain so much language? It has more than most Marvel movies and quite a bit more than the most recent DC films Wonder Woman and Aquaman. And if that isn’t likely to make parents wish they’d stuck to the latest animated film, the monsters will. So don’t fall for the cute, bubble-gum blowing movie poster. Shazam is fun, but not for those much younger than Billy Batson.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Steve Wilkie/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP) This image released by Warner Bros. shows Zachary Levi, left, and Jack Dylan Grazer in a scene from “Shazam!” 

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