Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Some schoolyard language and a few bad words
Teens try to buy beer, character with some substance abuse issues
Extended action/comic book peril and violence
Date Released to Theaters:
April 5, 2019
Date Released to DVD:
July 15, 2019
Here’s a word you don’t hear very often in reviews of superhero movies: “Shazam!” is adorable. Oh, yes, it’s exciting and has great fights and special effects and a good bad guy and all that. But it is also wildly entertaining, downright delightful, and, yes, adorable. This is an especially welcome development from DC Comic and Warner Brothers, which have tended toward the it’s-depressing-so-it-must-be-profound side of superhero stories.
“SHAZAM!” is fun. It is exciting. It is warm-hearted. It is very funny. And it is, no kidding, wise, in its own way much more profound than many portentous comic book movies with angsty heroes.
Screenwriter Henry Gayden draws as much from the classic Penny Marshall/Tom Hanks movie “Big” as he does from the varied history of the comic book character whose name is an acronym for the sources of his power:
S The wisdom of Solomon
H The strength of Hercules
A The stamina of Atlas
Z The power of Zeus
A The courage of Achilles
M The speed of Mercury
But Shazam has one more power that is even more intriguing — when teenager Billy Batson (a terrific Asher Angel) says “SHAZAM!” he doesn’t just turn into a superhero — he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). So Billy/Shazam is excited about being super-strong and having the power to zap things, but he is just as excited about being able to buy beer.
One thing he is not excited about is being sent to another foster home. Billy became separated from his mother at a fair when he was a child and has been bouncing around in the foster system ever since, trying to track down his mother whenever he gets a chance — and making chances when he does not.
The new foster home is headed by a couple who were foster kids themselves and it includes an assortment of children, most of whom try to reassure Billy, but he has no interest. His roommate is Freddy (an equally terrific Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with a crutch. But Billy does not want to make friends and getting close to anyone seems to him like an admission that his real family, his mother, will never be found. “Families are for people who can’t take care of themselves,” he says. And yet he cannot stop looking for the mother he lost, or who lost him.
And then Billy meets a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). We’ve already seen a flashback where another kid was given the chance to gain the powers of Shazam but failed the test. We won’t find out whether Billy passes the test because the wizard’s time is running out and Billy is his last chance. So, Billy gets the powers, and we get to watch him try to figure out what they are. So does Freddy, who becomes his sidekick, and then his friend, and then, maybe, his family.
While Billy/Shazam is having a blast — literally — with his new powers, the boy who failed the test in 1974 is now an angry man (all-purpose villain Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) who has spent his life trying to get another chance at the powers that he was once offered.
The film embraces its “Big” themes, with a callout to its most iconic scene, as Billy/Shazam pauses in a chase scene to play with a giant keyboard in a toy store.
Like Hanks, Levi shows us the boy inside the man, the unguarded expressions of someone who has not yet developed a social mask and the awkward moves of someone still trying on the adult body and not too sure of how it takes up space. Angel and Glazer are both outstanding, with tons of cinematic charisma. The story of Billy and Freddy is a perfect balance to the special effects/superhero storyline, and Billy’s growing understanding of what family really means is heartfelt and genuinely sweet.
To say more would be to spoil the movie’s best surprises, and you deserve to see them un-spoiled. Just go to one of this year’s most entertaining films.
NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!
ALSO NOTE: This is the first of two “Big”-inspired films this month. Coming up, we have the “Big” triple reversal “Little,” starring Black-ish’s Marsai Martin, who came up with the idea when she was watching the Hanks film. Instead of a white boy wishing to be big, this ons is about a black woman who is wished into becoming a child again. The film co-stars Regina Hall and “Insecure’s” Issa Rae.
Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/superhero peril and violence, some schoolyard and brief strong language, a teen sneaking into a strip club, and some potty humor. There are issues of parental abandonment.
Family discussion: What did Billy learn from seeing his mother? If you had Shazam’s powers, what would you do first? Was the wizard’s test a good one? How was Thaddeaus affected by his father?
If you like this, try: “Thor: Ragnarock” and “Wonder Woman”
Not another superhero movie, you say? And how far down the list of comic book characters do we have to go? The Teen Titans are way ahead of you. Silly, surreal, super-snarky, self-aware to a fault and smashing the fourth wall into smithereens, the “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” movie is a superhero movie about a third-tier superhero who only wants to fight the bad guy because that’s how he’ll get to be in a superhero movie. Got it?
It’s got plenty of inside humor for the fanboys who will know why it’s especially apt to have Nicolas Cage providing the voice for Superman, why it’s funny to have a Stan Lee cameo in a DC movie, who the Challengers of the Unknown are, and why the arch-villain Slade (producer Will Arnett) keeps being mistaken for Deadpool. And it has action, heartwarming friendships, and plenty of potty jokes for those who have no idea who the Teen Titans are, and, believe me, will not know much more about them when the movie is over.
The Teen Titans as they are currently portrayed are Robin (Batman’s sidekick, voiced by Scott Menville), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), who can turn himself into any animal, alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch), who signifies her other-worldliness by inserting “the” randomly in front of other words, the gothy Ravan (Tyra Strong), who can create portals from anywhere to anywhere, and Cyborg (Khary Payton), who can adapt his metal shell to create any machine. Insulted that they are not even invited to the premiere of the new Batman movie, Robin is even more horrified to see that upcoming sequels include movies about Batman’s butler, Alfred, and even one about his utility belt, but nothing about Robin. He appeals to the director, Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), but she says she cannot make a movie about him unless he has an arch-nemesis.
Enter Slade, “an archenemy whose name is fun to say in a dramatic way.”
There are songs. There are action scenes. There are many, many jokes about the world of comics, from the ultra-obscure (stay all the way to the end) to the widely accessible (yes, there are a lot of superhero movies and Green Lantern is still embarrassed about his). It makes fun of itself and then it makes fun of itself for making fun of itself, and then it makes fun of us for watching so many superhero movies. It is unpretentious, the look harking back to low-budget Saturday morning cartoon shows. And that makes it refreshing and delightful.
NOTE: The movie is preceded by a very cute DC superhero girls short called “The Late Batsby,” with Batgirl racing to catch up with her super-friends to fight Mr. Freeze.
Parents should know that this film includes extended cartoon-style action/superhero peril and violence, explosions, chases, fire, some characters briefly injured, potty humor, and schoolyard language.
Family discussion: If you made a movie about one of your friends, what would you include? Why did Robin want a movie so badly?
If you like this, try: the Teen Titans television series, “Incredibles 2″ and “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman”
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language
Brief strong language, one f-word
Extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, real and virtual weapons, chases, and explosions, arson, characters injured and killed
Date Released to Theaters:
March 30, 2018
Date Released to DVD:
July 23, 2018
You know that one perfect high note in the A-Ha song, “Take on Me?” The goosebumpy bliss of it? “Ready Player One,” with endless callbacks to the era of A-Ha, is that note as a movie, set in the future, in love with the past, and uncannily right of this exact moment. There could be no better director than Steven Spielberg to take on this movie about a virtual game filled with the cultural touchstones of the 1980’s, a decade he helped define for the generation who will now be taking their children to this film and re-entering their own childhoods. We are all Marty McFly, now, going back to the future in a Delorean.
Spielberg is as good as anyone has ever been at the craft of cinematic storytelling, and there has never been a story more suited to that craft than this one, based on the book by first-time author Ernest Cline, who co-scripted and co-produced, and who admits that his world view was in large part formed by the Spielberg movies he watched as a kid in the 1980’s. There is a lot of nostalgia in the film, but also themes that could have come from today’s news: the role of technology as a distraction and as an invasion of privacy and underminer of democracy and the idea of teenagers saving the world.
It is Columbus, Ohio, 2045, when “people have stopped trying to fix problems and are just trying to outlive them.” The world is a bleak and broken place and most people spend most of their time escaping reality via a massive, enthralling online world called The Oasis, invented by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) a shy, obsessive genius who is a combination of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Walt Disney, and Willy Wonka. “They come for all the things they can do,” we hear, “but stay for all the things they can be.” Players can design their own avatar personas any way they want — with antlers or wings, beautiful or ugly, super-powerful, purple, any age, gender, or species.
Five years before this story begins, Halliday died, leaving his half-trillion dollar empire and sole control of The Oasis to whomever was the first to discover the “Easter egg”* hidden in the game, which required agility, puzzle-solving, and a comprehensive knowledge of Halliday’s life and the popular culture he immersed himself in as a child in the 1980’s.
In five years, no one has even found the first of the three keys that lead to the egg. Many people have given up. Those still seeking it are called “gunters” (egg hunters). Wade Watts (“Mud’s” Tye Sheridan) is a teenage orphan living with his aunt and her latest in a series of abusive boyfriends in what is essentially a vertical trailer park called The Stacks. The film’s opening scene is brilliantly designed, as the camera pans down a dingy, jerrybuilt column of shabby capsules, showing each occupant caught up in a different virtual reality scenario, from boxing to pole dancing, with just one woman growing real-life flowers, the only person who even notices that Wade is there.
Wade signs into The Oasis, using haptic** gloves and a virtual reality eyepiece, for yet another try at crossing a virtual version of a Manhattan bridge guarded by King Kong. His avatar is Parzival***, who drives a Delorean, and he has an online friend, an enormous, mechanically-gifted man named Aech (I won’t reveal the voice performer to avoid spoilers). And he is intrigued by a female avatar named Art3mis (again, no spoilers) who rides the red motorcycle from the Akira video game. While Parzival and Art3mis both insist they will not “clan up” (team up with other players, they end up forming an alliance that includes two other avatars, Sho and Daito.
The Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is head of the rival online company, Innovative Online Industries, and he wants to be the one to find the egg so he can make a lot of money selling ads (he has determined the exact number of ads that can bombard users “before inducing seizures,” he crisply informs his staff) and charging for access. IOI has hundreds of researchers and gamers trying to find the egg. And it operates “Loyalty Centers,” essentially debtors prisons, where those who owe the company money have to work it off under brutal and impossibly Sissiphusian conditions.
Wade has to locate three keys and solve clues involving not just logic and intense research but empathy, clues that turn out to be wisely selected by Halliday, Willie Wonka-style, to find the right person to take over the Oasis. Spielberg himself has to locate three keys as a filmmaker and does so with as much grace, heart, and integrity as Wade, his own avatar through the story. The copper key is the game level, the action scenes and the next-level special effects, including the chase across the Manhattan bridge and a stunning set piece inside the Stanley Kubrick movie, The Shining, repurposed here with bravura wit and skill. The jade key is the nostalgia, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of 80’s references, from the iconic and enduring to the obscure and forgotten. It is not, as is too often the case, shortcuts to play into the audience’s emotions, but deployed, again, with consummate wit and skill as commentary, as surprise, and as a reminder of our connections to the pop culture that first excited and engaged us. And the crystal key, well, it has been said often that the theme of all Spielberg movies is finding your way home. Wade is a 21st century Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland — or David in “WarGames,” exploring a land of infinite magic and wonder — and danger — but learning that there’s no place like home.
*The use of the term “Easter egg” to describe secret features originates from the 1979 video game Adventure for the Atari 2600 game console, programmed by employee Warren Robinett.
**They make it possible for the wearer to “feel” or “touch” virtual characters and objects.
***Named for one of King Arthur’s knights, who devoted his life to the search for the Holy Grail.
Parents should know that this film includes extended real world and virtual peril and violence including chases, explosions, weapons, murder, brief crude humor, some sexual references, brief strong language
Family discussion: What would your avatar be in the Oasis and why? Why would people stop trying to fix problems? What would Sorrento do with the Oasis and how would users respond?
If you like this, try: The book by Ernest Cline and movies that this one refers to, including “The Shining,” “The Iron Giant,” and “Back to the Future”
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Some strong language
Extended comic book-style peril and violence, guns, fistfights, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
February 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD:
May 14, 2018
Wakanda forever! And all hail writer/director Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, and everyone who helped to bring this next-level, majestic, and wildly entertaining superhero movie to life.
Quick primer for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe: Black Panther, the first major black comic book superhero, lives in a self-sufficient, almost completely hidden African country called Wakanda. An American CIA field agent describes it as a poor, undeveloped country: “textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” That is how they want to be seen by the world. In reality, thanks to a meteor that landed there in prehistoric times, they are the world’s only source of a metal called vibranium, which is extremely powerful, and which has been the basis for the world’s most advanced technology. Because Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains and rainforests, they have never been colonized and had very little interaction with the rest of the world. When they did, it did not go well. King T’Chaka spoke to the UN in “Captain America: Civil War,” and was assassinated. After a brief scene set in the past, we begin the story when his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take over as king.
Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, gloriously imagined by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, reflecting extensive research into African design. It is worth seeing the film a second time just to revel in the wonderfully vibrant shapes and colors, and in the African landscape.
Wakanda’s all-female military is called the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). She advises T’Challa about a mission outside of Wakanda, where he is going to rescue his one-time girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who has gone undercover and has been captured by warlords. “Don’t freeze,” Okoye tells T’Challa. “I never freeze,” he replies. But he does. That’s the effect Nakia has on him. At first, she is angry that he interrupted her mission. But then he tells her that he wants her there when he becomes king, and she is glad to agree.
When they return, we see him honor his mother (Angela Bassett, regal and steadfast) and get teased by his sister, the tech whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is this movie’s version of James Bond’s Q, except that she does not just provide the cool gadgets; she invents them. Her motto seems to be what she tells her brother: “Just because something works does not mean it can’t be improved.” That comment, made as a gentle taunt to a brother who is not as comfortable with change as she is, is just one example of the way that this film is able to raise profound issues in a way that resonates but is never heavy-handed or distracting. And the way T’Challa responds to being teased like the admonition not to freeze, helps to humanize the brilliant, brave, handsome, wealthy, powerful superhero.
T’Challa wants to continue to keep Wakanda away from the troubles of the rest of the world. Nakia tells him that they are obligated to share what they have to help protect others. She says, “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.” Of course, they are both right, and this conflict is reflected throughout the film in a way that is remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, not just for a superhero movie but in any context.
As I have often said, superhero movies depend more on the villain than the hero, and this one has one of the all-time greats. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is nothing less than mesmerizing here, playing a man who represents the “other” to T’Challa, but who is connected to him as well. The film touches lightly but with insight on the difference between being an African, raised in a country where everyone is black and unqualifiedly patriotic, if insular, and being an African-American, deeply conflicted about the relationship with “home,” but better able to understand the plight of others. It touches on other vital contemporary issues like refugees and radicalization and it is all completely organic to the story.
And it is a full-on superhero movie, with a wild chase through an Asian city some very cool stunts, and a huge climactic fight scene involving a massive battle and at least two different modes of transportation, not including the battle rhinos. Yes, I said battle rhinos. I know, right?
The supporting cast includes an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), a rare on-screen appearance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis with his Tolkien co-star Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Forest Whitaker as a priest, Winston Duke as the leader of on of Wakanda’s five tribes, and “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown as a guy you’re better off not knowing too much about until you see the movie, which I hope you do, more than once. You’ll want to be a part of Wakanda, too.
Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic book-style action violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, spears, hand-to-hand combat, chases, explosions, and some strong language.
Family discussion: If T’Challa and Erik had grown up in each other’s environments, how would they be different? How should Wakanda resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation? Is it true that it is hard for a good man to be a good king? Why?
If you like this, try: the Black Panther comics and the Avengers movies