Grade: B
Entire family: No (really!)
2019, 132 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

In Shazam!, a teen foster kid turns into a fully costumed adult superhero with a lightning symbol on his chest every time he shouts “SHAZAM”—the name of an ancient wizard who passed along his power to the lad because he was “pure of heart.”

Except that in the early going we watch this Philly kid trick cops into a store, lock them in, steal the cop car, and, adding insult to injury, eat the driver’s steak sandwich and fries. Needless to say, Billy (mostly played by Asher Angel) has been in and out of foster homes for many years because of such delinquent behavior. But the message here comes across loud and clear: kids who do bad things can still be good, and let’s give a shout-out to all the foster parents out there who give them a chance. At one point we even see a close-up of his new foster’s car and the bumper sticker “I’m a foster mom—what’s your superpower?” Another theme that emerges is “Fosters are family,” something that’s reinforced by a third act team effort that’s needed to beat the evil supervillain.

But you might want to pay attention to that PG-13 rating, which, these days, means children 10 and older. The film gets off to a slow start, for one thing. The first-act set-up can seem both confusing and tedious to younger viewers because it intercuts the villain’s childhood back story with current attempts by foster-kid Billy to locate the mother he lost at a carnival when he wandered off many years ago. But just as Billy has a dual identity—kid and adult—this film at times seems great for kids, while there are other times when those kids had better leave the room . . . or be traumatized.

Truly frightening things happen when the seven deadly sins are personified as real monsters that do some really monstrous things—like biting people’s heads off. And the supervillain (Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) is pretty darned menacing as the bitter adult version of a child once summoned by the wizard, but rejected . . . and by his father, as well, who blames him for a car accident that’s graphic enough that small children might fear everyone has been killed or seriously mutilated. 

It’s too bad that there’s such an extreme level of violence and traumatic situations, because once Billy finds out he can turn into a superhero and back again by shouting the wizard’s name, there are fun homages to Big, that great Tom Hanks film about a boy who turns into a man and still has the mindset of a boy, as happens here. There’s even a scene where Billy-as-Shazam finds himself standing on a big keyboard. At another point Billy-as-Shazam goes into a convenience store with his foster brother and sidekick, the disabled and nerdy Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Billy asks for “some of your best beer,” and a bemused clerk points the way. As they grab a six-pack, hoodlums try to rob the cashier. Go save the day, Freddy coaxes. When Billy-as-Shazam is shot point blank and the boys realize he can stop bullets the way Superman can, the scene is played totally for laughs. So are many others. Yet, such comic scenes are balanced by those scary moments—none of which I’ll describe here, because they depend in part on shock value.

A film like this might have been great for all ages, the way PG-13 Star Wars films are, but because of its split personality Shazam! is only recommended for children ages 10 and up. Maybe it’s just as well. Much of the film is a clever and funny satire of superhero conventions, with subtle allusions that might fly over the heads of younger viewers. Yes, it’s Big meets The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but because of the fun that writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke have with the whole idea of superheroes, Shazam! also manages to carve out its own identity.

Language: No f-bombs but a few middle fingers plus numerous lesser swearwords (hell, damn, ass, shit, nipples, boobies, suck balls, etc.

Sex: Nothing here except the implied

Violence: A bloody car accident leaves you hanging, a man is executed in shocking fashion, and the Seven Deadly sins stab, strangle, mutilate, and eat people.

Adult situations: Billy-as-Shazam goes to a strip club (only building exterior shown), buys and briefly drinks beer, and the two boys talk about people on drugs.

Takeaway: This Shazam! beats the previous film and television series because of its humor and wink-wink satire of the superhero genre (“Oh, you’re monologuing? I can’t hear you because of . . . .”)