The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Pat Padua’s review of “Shazam!,” click here.
You’d think the last person you’d want to give superpowers to would be a teenager. Sure, it worked out OK for Peter Parker, but it wasn’t like the spider knew Parker was venom-worthy. But DC’s “Shazam!” is about a 14-year-old kid who gets CHOSEN to have powers — which, to anyone who’s ever known a 14-year-old boy, is clearly a mistake. Yet to anyone who’s ever known a 14-year-old-boy, it also makes perfect sense. They’re basically wearing disguises all the time anyway.
In the Philly-set “Shazam!,” 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) continually runs from foster homes in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to locate his mom. After his latest escape, he ends up in a home with an extended foster family and rooming with the superhero-obsessed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). At school the next day, Freddy is on the receiving end of some bullying. Billy reluctantly comes to his aid, beats up the bullies and heads for the subway. Suddenly, the car hurtles out of control and arrives in an underground lair inhabited by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) looking for someone “pure of heart and strong of spirit” to take on his mantle. Billy somewhat confusedly accepts, and now can turn into a fully grown, spandex-clad superhero simply by saying “Shazam.”
As the adult Billy (aka Shazam), Zachary Levi is goofily endearing in a Tom Hanks-in-“Big” kind of way, especially when he dons his “I’m a 14-year-old boy and this is what I think a superhero’s face looks like” face. He and Freddy gambol about town doing what 14-year-old boys would do if one of them suddenly looked like Zachary Levi on a low-carb, lift-heavy diet and exercise plan — they buy beer, blow stuff up and have a training montage that’s the best cinematic use of a Queen song since “Wayne’s World.” [Side-eyes “Bohemian Rhapsody.”]
Then a bad guy shows up and Billy’s foray into the fun world of YouTube stardom takes a pretty hard turn into the world of grown-up responsibility. That’s what happens with teenagers; they get tools of massive power — phones, Instagram, super-speed, whatever — often before they have the emotional capacity to wield them.
“Shazam!” isn’t about two characters, Billy and Shazam. It’s about one: a person who sometimes looks like a man but always feels like a teenager. People who see Billy only as an eye-rolling teen or a lonely foster kid miss out on his strength; people who see Shazam only as a protein-packed punch machine miss out on his vulnerability.
I love teenagers for their Shazam-ness; they can appear so scary, and then turn out to be so sweet. The best way to look at a teenager is to see them as they are: an adolescent in a superhero costume they aren’t quite sure how they obtained.
After Billy becomes Shazam, he has a host of new gifts he can give that go far beyond buying beer. But he also has a host of new needs. He needs teaching and encouragement; he also needs to be told to pull his head out of his leotard once in a while. He seems powerful — and he is — but to ignore the goofy but frightened, funny but hurting kid underneath the cape is to see only half of the story.
For more movie musings, follow Kristen on Twitter: @kpagekirby