This is a disney version of a Superhero film. Foster homes for abandoned children, Christmas time in Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love) and Santa Claus handing out gifts, prefix the discovery of superhero powers for a 14 year old who lost his Mom at a fair when he was a little boy. The lightheartedness inherent in this movie lets you see superhero abilities from a different perspective; that of a child who uses fantasy to escape from bitter reality.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) let go of his mother’s hand and never saw her again. Now a troubled teenager, he escapes from foster homes, while searching for his biological mother. He scans data bases, and even rings random doorbells on the street, with the name ‘Batson’. One day, while living in a more congenial home with five other foster kids, he gets on a train at a station, and magically ends up in the ‘lair’ of a wizard called ‘Shazam’.
When this unwanted child meets the dying wizard, he is informed that his heart has been found to be as pure as it is realistically possible for it to be so, that he has been given the title of ‘Champion’, and that special powers have been conferred upon him. He can now turn into a superhero by yelling ‘Shazam!’, and turn back into Billy Batson by shouting out the same name.
Coincidentally, Harry Potter, who was a very British superhero, also liked to get on to a train at King’s Cross Station, from platform nine and three quarters to be specific, to go meet the wizards in Scotland. The child’s perspective of acquiring special powers from a magician seems to be a theme that works well across cultures, and the makers of this film have cottoned on to it.
Interestingly, ‘Shazam!’ makes a visual distinction between a child and a superhero, by casting an adult as the evolved version. So when the magical transformation takes place, the actor playing Billy Batson is Zachary Levi. He plays the role by using the conversational style and the intellectual maturity of a 14 year old, while retaining the perpetually dumbfounded look of a confused adult.
In effect, we get a superhero who talks like a kid, but who can do cool things like fly, rescue people in overturned buses, and zap the bad guys. How does he learn this?
The learning procedure is the entertainment in the movie. Billy’s foster brother at the home, a kid called Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a nerd who knows every single super skill of all the superheroes in all of comic book history. He checks out Billy, and tests him, to find out what he can, or cannot do.
As a training film for a superhero, ‘Shazam!’ does have its moments, both literal and satirical, but like all other superhero movies, it keeps expanding on the same theme, until it loses some of its charm. The inevitable villain with superior super powers (Mark Strong) turns up, and Billy’s battles with him are never ending.
Still, ‘Shazan!’ succeeds in altering points of view, and allowing us to look at the concept of the superhero from another angle. Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch (Superman) and George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’, for example, give us some hint about how and when a society creates a superhero – usually, when science, or the general acceptance of the theory of evolution, has rendered the idea of ‘God’ as dead. Is the Superhero, then, a substitute?