We all have a superhero inside us; it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word, SHAZAM! this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.
Stretched well beyond its apparent intent, Shazam! could serve as a parable about what we as Christians do with our spiritual gifts. Do we use them for our own personal glory—showing off, making a name for ourselves, maybe even profiting a little bit—or do we use them to serve and better the lives of those around us? That’s what young Billy Batson has to come to grips with in a superhero movie that, to use a Batman actor analogy, is much more Adam West than Michael Keaton.
Accepting that the movie is, of course, meant to be theatrical and not at all theological makes it easier to digest the underlying message that even immature good is stronger than mature, fully developed evil. Shazam is supposed to be more an acronym than a name, as the abilities to be displayed descend from sources biblical and mythical—the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles and speed of Mercury. S-H-A-Z-A-M!
Billy is a 14-year-old foster kid (Asher Angel) deserted as a toddler by his too-young mother. As he figures out who his real family is (the diverse one that takes him in, rather than an elusive biological one), Billy sticks up for his crippled foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer) against a pair of bullies at school. That draws the attention of a fading wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who seeks a worthy person to whom he can bequeath his benevolent magic. They meet at the end of a supernatural subway ride that begins in Philadelphia and ends in a dark, cave-like supernatural dimension, where the wizard gives Billy power to transform, quick as lightning, into a superhuman adult (Zachary Levi) by uttering the wizard’s name, “SHAZAM!”
Billy spends a great deal of the movie testing the limits of his inherited powers, getting carried away with them at times, like a teenager given the keys to the family car. Soon, he realizes there’s a more noble purpose to the powers than posting viral videos and entertaining people by shooting lightning out of his fingertips; he has to stand up to Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who the wizard had tested and found wanting as a boy at the beginning of the movie. Why? Because, Billy says, “It’s what a good brother would do.”
Thad grows up into a brooding, power-grabbing sorcerer and acquires demonic powers that correspond to the seven deadly sins—pride, greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, sloth and envy—by placing a glowing orb in his right eye. He wants what many archvillains want in these kind of flicks—world-domination power. And to get it, he must force Billy to give him the magic that the wizard bequeathed to him.
The adult Thad seems to dominate, but never defeat, the still-teenager-at-heart Billy at every turn, until Billy wisely figures out that he can’t win alone. He has to share his powers with his five foster brothers and sisters. Together, they corral the evil spirits and Billy vanquishes Thad for good.
There’s a lot of Tom Hanks’ innocent character in Big in Levi’s cartoonishly muscular performance, and even one scene that is an obvious homage to that movie. The message is positive overall, and the means by which it’s delivered is a lot more light-hearted than the 1970s CBS Saturday-morning series, where Billy Batson (Michael Gray) rode around the country in a Winnebago with an aging mentor played by Les Tremayne.
There are aspects of this movie that make this reviewer want to give it a passing grade. But Dove audiences may find deal breakers in hard-to-stomach language concerns and maybe some of the violence with evil spirits.