What’s in a name? Shakespeare once asked.
Answer: Quite a bit, actually—if the name’s Shazam.
Sure, it may sound a little goofy, but it’s not like the name came like a bolt from the blue. (Well, it did, but let’s move on for now.) And for the longest of times, a grand old wizard has kept the name and safeguarded its powers—and in so doing, kept some monstrous manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins at bay.
Alas, even a wizard’s powers don’t last forever. And when the evil genius Dr. Thaddeus Sivana breaks into Shazam’s stone temple and grabs the glowing, orb-like embodiment of those sins, that selfsame orb slams into Sivana’s eye socket and allows the nasty sins to escape—and take up super-powered residence in Sivana’s body.
Only one thing can save the world from a really nasty future: the wizard Shazam must find a champion of his own—one strong of spirit and pure of heart, one willing to use the fabled name and unfurl the powers it unlocks. Say the name, and boom! The chosen one becomes the World’s Mightiest Mortal. That’s a way more effective transformation process than changing clothes in a phone booth (whatever those are).
But strong-of-spirit, pure-of-heart types are pretty rare these days, and Shazam’s in a bit of a time crunch. So he settles for a 14-year-old foster kid named Billy Batson.
Hey, he could do worse, right?
The Wizard Shazam could indeed do worse … but it takes a while for Billy’s character to become as bright and shiny as the lightning bolt on his chest.
Billy’s no hero at first. Few 14-year-olds are. And he’s saddled with plenty of his own pain: For most of his life, he’s searched for his birth mother. He’s run away from a bevy of well-meaning foster parents during his ill-conceived quest.
He’s “out of options” (as his social worker tells him) when he lands in a group home run by Victor and Rosa Vasquez—a conscientious couple who are raising a bevy of boisterous foster teens and children. They don’t see themselves as stopgap caretakers, but parents, and they love their children fiercely. Forget legally-mandated group home: This is a family.
The Vasquez clan, especially disabled teen Freddy Freeman, becomes a catalyst for real change in Billy’s life. And so Shazam! does more than remind us how important and powerful family can be: It also tells us that sometimes the best families aren’t always the ones we’re born into—a great message for foster and adopted kids everywhere.
The movie also pushes another important point home: None of us are born heroes. No, we’re made into the people we are through our own choices. And when those choices are rooted in love and kindness and bravery and, above all, self-sacrifice, we have a chance to become the people we should be.
We’ve got a lot to get through here, so we might as well start with the word Shazam.
It’s an acronym (only briefly namechecked) representing six legendary figures and their most legendary powers. The “S” stands for the biblical figure Solomon and, of course, his vaunted wisdom (though that wisdom seems to take a while to take root in Billy). The other letters stand for a litany of Greek and Roman gods and heroes: Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.
It’s fitting that the Seven Deadly Sins also seem to be a mishmash of Christian and pagan influences here. Those sins—wrath, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy and pride—are pulled directly from Christian antiquity and come across as fearsome demons here. But while they look, in some cases, like the sins they represent (gluttony having a huge mouth and big tummy, for instance), they don’t necessarily attack or influence as you’d expect, through their namesake transgressions.
They’re all inclined to whisper temptations into a subject/victim’s ear like a community of Mephistopheles, and they’re all down for killing whenever they can. We also hear a legend of how these sins were first unleashed on the world, and it has more in common with the pagan story of Pandora’s Box than the Judeo-Christian understanding of the Garden of Eden.
These seven entities feel quite demonic. And they come and go from within Sivana’s body, suggesting something like possession, even though they never take over his personality or mind in the way that we normally think about that idea.
At dinner, Victor habitually leads a combination prayer/huddle: Everyone puts their hands together at the center of the table while Victor offers thanks: “Thank you for this family,” one prayer goes, “thank you for this day, thank you for this food, even if it’s not steak filet.” And we hear other rhyming variants of that prayer several more times throughout the film.
The original Shazam is always referred to as a “wizard,” the last of a counsel of wizards. The powers that both the hero Shazam and his nemesis Sivana have are called “magic.” A child consults a magic 8-ball for advice. Symbols and runes appear frequently—on doors, clocks, car radios and the like—and take on an aura of occultic magic and mysticism. In a post-credit scene, a creature talks about how he “named the gods,” suggesting they’re not nearly as powerful as he is.
Remember, Billy’s 14 years old—a time of, shall we say, strong hormonal activity. So when he realizes that shouting “Shazam” will transform him into a full-grown adult, one of his first stops is a strip club. (When he exits, Shazam says that everyone was “so nice” there, and he spent all of the money he brought in. His friend, Freddy, asks repeatedly about the breasts Shazam presumably saw inside.)
In another scene, when Shazam and his foster home brothers and sisters are in a serious jam, he figures they’ll only be able to get out of it by teleporting somewhere else. Shazam has to think of a safe place to teleport to, and the first spot that pops to mind is the same strip club. The whole fam (most of whom are very underage) lands inside (the camera doesn’t follow them), and their reactions to the place after they flee the establishment range from horror (from older teen Mary) to near-adoration (from Freddy) to a strong desire to get glitter (from youngest sister Darla).
Billy, as Shazam, tries to flirt with some “older” women. When the wizard Shazam tells Billy to grab his staff, Billy’s reaction turns the scene into a sexually charged joke. Freddy describes invisibility as a “pervy” superpower—adding that when people anonymously say what superpower they’d most like to have, it’s this one.
Yes, Shazam! looks light and funny and strangely kid-friendly in the trailers. But the movie itself gets pretty dark.
The movie emphasizes the “deadly” in its Seven Deadly Sins. One of these manifestations grotesquely chomps down on the head of a businessman, removing it. Sivana, using the power the Sins give him, flings another out of a skyscraper window, after which he falls to his death. A third victim seems to be eaten alive. Lots of other businesspeople are apparently slaughtered by the creatures. While most of the carnage is obscured by white opaque windows, the victims fling themselves (or, in some cases, are thrown) at those windows, giving audiences a taste of the terror going down in the next room.
The creatures themselves are nightmare fuel for young and/or impressionable viewers, no doubt. They chase and threaten and sometimes throw people around, and one tries to pull down a Ferris wheel filled with innocent people.
Shazam (the hero) and a host of helpmates fight the Sivana and his Sins (and some other criminals, too). Lots of requisite hitting and throwing and wrestling takes place, sometimes damaging roofs and walls and asphalt roads. One of Shazam’s fists lands in a particularly sensitive area, but blows to the head and gut abound.
Freddy tries to “help” Billy/Shazam discover his superpowers. During Freddy’s flying tests, Shazam lands badly a couple of times and, at one juncture, smashes into a skyscraper. When he’s supposedly testing Shazam’s teleportation abilities, Freddy sets the box Shazam’s crouching in on fire. (Lucky, Shazam’s immune to the flames.) And when Shazam stops a convenience store robbery, Freddy advises the criminals to not just shoot the hero (which they do, repeatedly), but in the face—to determine just how bullet proof he is. (“It kind of tickles!” Shazam enthuses.)
A terrifically terrible car crash opens the movie: One guy is thrown from a car and lies, helpless, in a pool of blood. People sometimes die after being turned into towers of ash: One woman screams as her face blows away. We hear that someone was paralyzed in an accident many years before. A glowing ball of demons smacks into someone’s face and embeds itself in an eye socket (leaving a gruesome scar).
Shazam can shoot lightning bolts from his fingers, and when he’s showing off one day, he accidentally causes a bus to careen out of control. The bus teeters on the edge of a bridge, sending several passengers crashing into the windshield. Shazam catches the bus and sets it down.
Freddy’s knocked down and kicked repeatedly by a couple of bullies: Billy attacks the bullies in turn with one of Freddy’s crutches. Freddy graphically describes the sort of wedgie the bullies later give him. A man screams from the effects of pepper spray. Someone’s scalp is cut via a batarang. A truck suffers some serious damage. Monsters lurk behind doors and sometimes attack the people who open them. A kid plays the video game Mortal Combat, shouting “Die! Die!” as he does so. When a baddie gets knocked out later on, another Mortal Combat phrase, “Fatality!” can be heard.
Five s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including several uses of “a–” and “h—,” and one each of “crap,” “d–n,” “f-g,” “d–k” and “d–chebag.” God’s name is misused at least a dozen times, while Jesus’ name is abused once.
Again taking advantage of his new adult body, Billy/Shazam (along with Freddy) goes into a convenience store and buys beer. Both he and Freddy take a swig and spit it out simultaneously, with one saying it tastes like “literal vomit.” They scrap their beer-drinking plans and buy a bunch of junk food instead.
Billy keeps lots of emotional distance between himself and his foster family at first, hurting plenty of feelings along the way. And if anything, the superpowers he gets make the guy even more of a jerk. Initially, Billy’s not as interested in being a hero as Shazam as he is in being a celebrity.
As Shazam, he skips school to pose with photo-snapping admirers (and, hopefully, earn lots of tips, too). He performs a hand-lightning show for onlookers—a guitar case at the ready to catch any cash thrown his way. He skips out on making a reputation-bolstering appearance with Freddy at the school cafeteria, leading to pain and embarrassment.
Not that Freddy’s always the best influence. The two lie to a school security guard (making fun of his name and abilities, while they’re at it) to skip a day of school. They lie to keep Shazam’s secret, and make other folks lie, too. There’s a lot of selfishness and dishonesty in play for much of the movie, too. And while it’s never condoned, these moments are often played for laughs.
We hear that Roman soldiers used to brush their teeth with urine. Someone runs out of a bathroom, hurriedly zipping his fly. There’s a joke involving body odor, and one of Shazam’s possible nicknames invokes a reference to a rear end. Someone apparently spits on a baby.
We see some pretty terrible parenting here, too—though not, it should be noted, by Billy’s foster parents. That said, families with fostered or adopted children need to be aware that themes of separation, loss and finding one’s biological parents are all present throughout this film for anyone who might be sensitive to those themes.
When the Wizard Shazam first tells Billy that he’s looking for someone “strong in spirit, pure in heart,” Billy tries to tell him he’s neither of those things. “I don’t know if anyone is, really.”
That moment of modest wisdom exemplifies, I think, the best of Shazam!—when the movie itself seems to be strong in spirit and, at least, pure-ish in heart. And it’s more proof that the DC Extended Universe, after years of trailing Marvel in every possible way, is finding its footing.
Shazam! sets aside moral miasmas of movies such as Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice¬, where whole populated cities were destroyed for the sake of a suitably destructive finale. Shazam! skews not just lighter and funnier, but also more responsible. Life is treated as the precious thing that it is.
Shazam’s heroism isn’t rooted in his superpowers, but rather his growing personal character and his strengthening relationship with his family—the one which loves him and cares for him despite his many missteps. Indeed, the movie emphatically displays how strong and powerful families can be—and how important good ones are to helping mold good people.
And let’s be honest: Shazam! is fun to watch, too.
But as Billy so cogently reminds us, no one is without faults. No movie is, either—and this movie also has plenty of weaknesses.
Though the film’s trailers hint that it’s more kid-friendly than some superhero flicks, it’s not. The violence is just as violent and the language is just as raw as we’d see and hear in any of them. Moreover, this film comes with issues you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a superhero flick: The Deadly Sins we see are pretty scary no matter your age. And while a 14-year-old unexpectedly given a man’s body really might go to a strip club, that doesn’t mean that you should take your own kids to watch him go.
Shazam!, like its namesake hero—much like us all, really—is a bundle of contradictions. Sometimes we see monsters, and sometimes we see monstrous behavior. But we see a hero, too—flawed, yes, but ultimately one who’s strong in spirit and growing in character.
None of us are born heroes. No, we’re made into the people we are through our own choices. Help your family make heroic choices to be all that God wants them to be with some of the following resources:
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.