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Shazam!

Released 2019. Director: David Sanberg

EVERY KID WANTS TO BE A SUPERHERO. LUCKY FOR BILLY BATSON, who gets to be the real deal when he’s transformed into a caped crusader like an unexpected Christmas present.

Chased by school bullies into the subway one day, 14-year-old Billy suddenly finds himself transported into another realm, where a wizard in search of someone who is “strong in spirit and pure of heart” has chosen him to be the one. Before you could spell out abracadabra, Billy’s all grown up and muscled up, looking like Jimmy Fallon’s long lost brother in red tights with a gold lightning insignia on his chest, and, wait for it, endowed with a range of superpowers Billy learns to unleash, such as flashing electricity from his fingers, levitation, super strength, much to his giddy boyish delight.

Shazam! is made very much with younger audiences in mind. There is not a word of bad language spoken, not a drop of blood is spilled even when the fighting gets super-duper full-on when life-sized gargoyle-like monsters pounce and chomp on screaming humans (mostly off screen).

It’s a family movie parents can leave the kids to watch worry-free. It’s loud, full of action and light comedy delivered mostly by a cast of young actors engaging enough to hold the attention of most youngsters.

Older audiences may pick up references from other movies liberally scattered throughout. You’ll be reminded of Monsters Inc, Superman, Lord of the Rings, and in one scene when our superhero runs through a toy store he steps on a giant keyboard on the floor, a nod to Tom Hanks in Big, which is appropriate as Shazam! is very much a “kid in an grown-up’s body” movie.

Not just Billy but in the end, his friends have also become superheroes in their adult forms. An inspirational and feel-good message young audiences can take away happily. Yes, kids, you can achieve your potential and be the best you can be.

The big bad guy making trouble this time is played by British actor Mark Strong, better known in non-kiddy movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Zero Dark Thirty. A role like the evil Sivana here is hardly a challenge and Strong tries his best to do with what is essentially a very thin character. His stern face and threatening pose is meant to project a foil to Zachary Levi’s jokey and playful persona. A contrast so obvious that even for young audiences it seems a lazy way of storytelling. The same goes for the monsters representing the seven deadly sins, which I doubt anyone can tell which is which. Would’ve been a lot more interesting if each of them kills in a way that reflects the sin it personifies. Never underestimate the intelligence of the audiences, even though they might be young. Suggest, and you spark a child’s imagination.

One thing I find interesting is the depiction of parents. The foster parents caring for Billy and all the eventual superheroes are sweet and nice and genuinely concerned for the kids. On the other hand, Billy’s birth mother clearly does not even wish to acknowledge him, when Billy finally locates her. Sivana also has the kind of relationship with his father which can only be described as murderous. Is it a deliberate part of the story to portray natural parents in such a bad light? What would the young audiences think of this?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into an unintentional inference. Shazam! is meant to deliver light, inoffensive entertainment and on this score it succeeds, though I suspect it will soon be forgotten in a world already crowded with the continual arrival of one superhero movie after another.

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