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Non-Review Review: Shazam!

There’s a lot to like about Shazam!

Most obviously, there’s the sheer joy that the film takes in live-action superheroics. It is, of course, something of a cliché to suggest that a certain film or television show “makes superheroes fun again.” Even just among the recent crop of superhero cinema, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseIncredibles 2, Ant Man and the Wasp, Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming can all claim to have injected fun back into the genre. (Indeed, for their myriad flaws, the problem with Justice League and Aquaman was not that they weren’t trying to have fun. Quite the opposite in fact.) So it is disingenuous to state that Shazam! reintroduces the concept of fun into the genre.

Dab-bling in superheroics.

However, Shazam! still takes an incredible amount of joy in playing with the tropes and conventions of the genre. Part of this comes built into the premise. While the character of Captain Marvel could be seen as an example of the “flying brick” archetype most effectively embodied by Superman, the most appealing part of the concept has always been his secret identity. Unlike other superheroes who simply change costume to fight crime, the character physically transforms into a superhero through the use of the magic word. Captain Marvel’s secret identity is Billy Batson, usually portrayed as a child or a teenager. There’s something endearing about the wish fulfillment that anchors that concept. Shazam! invites its audience to look at superheroics through the eyes of a child.

The first two acts of Shazam! are (mostly) a joy, an engaging riff on a playful concept that understands a large part of the appeal of superheroes to their target audience. Unfortunately, the film fumbles the ball in its third act. While the relative innocence and simplicity of Shazam! are a large part of its appeal, the climax of the film gets a little bit too boggled down in cynical worldbuilding, indulging in a bloated and over-extended computer-generated fight sequence that feels lifted from a much less playful and exciting film. To borrow an old cliché, Shazam! almost convinces its audience that a man can fly, but it just can’t stick the landing.

Zap to it.

Shazam! has something surprisingly interesting and pointed to say about the nature of the superhero genre as a whole. Similar to films like The Lego Movie or Into the Spider-Verse, extended sequences of Shazam! play like an affectionate argument that some toys should belong primarily to the next generation rather than to their parents. After all, superheroes are nominally family-friendly and crowd-pleasing entertainment, concepts that are constantly reworked and reinvented over extended periods of times, reimagined and reconceptualised to reflect an ever-changing world. While superhero stories can be used to tell important stories about contemporary America, they can also be structured as simple operatic moral fables about the struggle between good and evil.

One of the interesting shifts in comic book publishing has been the shift away from younger readers and towards an older established and entitled fanbase. There are a number of obvious reasons for this, many of which are rooted in the seventies and eighties. The success of more “mature” comic books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen served as proof that comics were “not just for kids any more.” At the same time, shifts in the market made comic books more expensive, more exclusive and less accessible to younger audiences. Through the seventies and eighties, kids could no longer casually pick up a cheap comic book at a grocery store and jump into a story with minimal background knowledge.

These shifts turned comic books from a massive American industry into a niche market. In 1960, Superman was selling roughly eight hundred thousand copies of each issue. By 1986, the average circulation of a given issue was under one hundred thousand. The speculation boom of the nineties solidified the idea of comic books as something to be collected and curated, rather than as something to be read and enjoyed, creating a market for obsessives and investors rather than for casual readers. The comic book publishing industry seems to be stuck in a state of perpetual crisis, in large part due to the crystalisation of the idea of comic books as a niche collectors’ item rather than as a universal piece of pop entertainment.

This shift was as much cultural as economical. The average age of comic book readers has increased dramatically since the early days of the medium; one in four comic book readers is over sixty-five years old. Although there is some indication that the average age of readers is stabilising (or even decreasing), retailers acknowledge that the stereotypical modern comic book fan is over thirty years old. At the same time, kid-friendly comics have arguably become the exception rather than the rule. (Despite evidence that they sell very well.) This has led to a number of cultural clashes over the future of comic books as a medium, with conservative voices arising in fandom vocally objecting to attempts to diversify comic books and the iconic characters that populate them.

Staying in the red.

This has led to something of a crisis in comic book publishing and distribution. Despite the fact that it serves as the cornerstone of a gold rush in contemporary blockbuster cinema, the comic book industry seems to be perpetually on the verge of collapse. Every few months, observers seem to question whether Marvel and DC are still viable as comic book publishers rather than as intellectual property farms. This is amazing, given the ubiquity and popularity of the superhero in contemporary popular culture. Superhero films routinely smash box office records, have begun earning mainstream awards recognition, and have become part of the shared cultural language. A large part of this is the way in which superhero films have a mass appeal with which the comics can no longer compete.

None of this is to suggest that comic have to be childish, or to devalue the impact and legacy of adult-friendly comic books like V for Vendetta, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns or countless others. Superheroes can be used to tell adult-friendly stories; Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises remain a benchmark for using the genre to tell powerful stories about contemporary American culture. Indeed, even superhero stories that are child-friendly do not have to alienate older viewers; Into the Spider-Verse is one of the best superhero films ever made, and one as likely to resonate with adults as it is with children. The problem arises when the genre is beholden to the demands and expectations of entitled and angry middle-aged fans.

In its strongest moments, Shazam! seems to tackle this idea head-on. The film pits Captain Marvel against the villainous Doctor Sivana, but in a form that would be largely unrecognisable to most comic book fans. On paper, Sivana is something of a stock mad scientist supervillain, one subsequently reinvented as a sinister industrialist; indeed, Sivana is much closer to a Lex Luthor archetype than Captain Marvel is to Superman. (Casual fans might even see Sivana’s design as a rip-off of that of Luthor, ignoring the fact that Sivana wore the “bald mad scientist” look long before Luthor codified it.) Whether fairly or not, because of the character’s extended period languishing in absurdity, Sivana feels like something of a generic antagonist.

This affords Shazam! the luxury to reinvent Thaddeus Sivana. The character retains his defining characteristics; he is still a bald mad scientist with strong familial connections to major industry. However, Shazam! makes a point to recontextualise the character as a foil for Billy Batson. This is an interesting approach, and one which reflects one of the more unexpected delights of Shazam! In a number of ways, Shazam! feels like a throwback to a kind of superhero film that doesn’t really exist any more, evoking the blockbusters that existed before the Marvel Cinematic Universe codified the language of superhero cinema. Shazam! often feels of a piece with efforts like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Tim Burton’s Batman, particularly in how it takes liberties with the source material.

Comic relief.

In particular, the film is structured around the juxtaposition of Sivana and Batson in a way that reflects standard cinematic narrative conventions more than the mechanics of modern superhero blockbusters that tend to be fixated on textual fidelity. Modern comic books fans would balk at the convenience of having both Batman and the Joker serve as the catalyst for the other’s transformation in Tim Burton’s Batman, an alteration to the established mythos that works as effective (if slightly clumsy) thematic shorthand. Many modern superhero films like Thor: The Dark World or Captain Marvel are not especially interested in paralleling their heroes and antagonists, happy to let continuity and lore fill in the gaps.

In contrast, Shazam! imposes a strong parallel between Billy Batson and Thaddeus Sivana, improvising around the characters’ comic book back story in order to strengthed the thematic resonance of the narrative. (There is a sense that outside factors may also have been at play here; Black Adam arguably makes a much more convincing foil for Captain Marvel, but the casting of Dwayne Johnson in the role effectively taking the character off the table as a potential antagonist for a superhero origin story.) Both Batson and Sivana are defined by their relationship to the power of the eponymous wizard, and their desire to possess it. Indeed, Shazam! even has Sivana acquire the power of the seven deadly sins, directly contrasting him with Batson’s own use of composite virtues.

More to the point, it is revealing that Shazam! has Batson come into these gifts as a teenager. Batson is granted an incredible array of powers while still a child, empowered with everything from super-speed to super-strength, and allowed to play with those in his own way. In contrast, Sivana first encounters these powers as a child, enjoying a fleeting encounter with the eponymous wizard during a family car trip. Sivana only fleetingly brushes against the world of myth and magic, but it becomes an obsession for him. The opening scene suggests that Sivana’s encounter took place more than four decades earlier, but he never managed to move past it. When the audience encounters Sivana as an adult, he is still picking over his memories of that one night.

It is no surprise that Sivana’s investment has manifested itself as a pseudo-scientific obsession, an attempt to codify and quantify magic through facts and figures. Sivana devotes himself to decoding the iconography of the mysterious wizard who met him as a child, the figure who then rejected him and sent him home. The idea is that such magic can be distilled down a recognisable set of symbols, and that Sivana can recapture the lost magic of his childhood. “I’ve spent my entire life to trying to find this place,” Sivana boasts to Billy on setting foot in the mysterious realm. There is some suggestion that Sivana has remained trapped in that moment, unable to escape it even as he grew older; a reunion with his brother and father suggests that they still see him as a joke.

Superhero training montage.

There is a sense in which this feels very much like a commentary on a certain sort of superhero fandom, the devoted older generation of fans who have a very fixated idea of what superhero stories should be; fans who take the genre very seriously and very rigourously, and who have a very strong feeling of entitlement. Shazam! makes a point to stress that Sivana is largely motivated by his jealousy of Batson, his resentment of the fact that the power in question now belongs to a child rather than to somebody who understands it and who has devoted his life to it. At the climax of the story, as Sivana unleashes the six of the seven deadly sins upon the world, it is revealing that “envy” is the sin that he keeps closest to his own heart.

Any number of parallels suggest themselves, and not merely consigned to comics fandom. Movements like “gamergate” and “comicsgate” are rooted in the idea that certain media belong to their traditional codified fandoms and should not be shared with outsiders. Indeed, there are elements of this to other fandoms like Star Wars or Star Trek, where newer adaptations aimed at younger audiences are routinely greeted with suspicion and hostility. The conflict between Sivana and Batson feels like it is consciously framed in these terms, right down to the narrative’s decision to take the more modern “new 52” reimagining of Billy Batson rather than more traditional interpretations.

(It should be noted that elements of Johns’ revamped Captain Marvel mythos, like the foster home and Batson’s rebellious streaks, were controversial to more conservative corners of comics book fandom when they debuted in 2012. A certain type of established fandom was prone to describe the relaunched character as “Billy Bratson”, unable or unwilling to accept that perhaps the character had changed over the seventy-plus years since his first appearance. Shazam! positions Sivana as an avatar of these sorts of fan complaints, allowing him to monologue about how awful and entitled he believes the young boy to be and dismissing him as inherently unworthy to serve as his adversary.)

That said, despite offering Sivana this strong conceptual grounding, Shazam! does little to actually develop him as a character. In the first two acts, the script only really grinds to a halt when it has to focus on the villain. Mark Strong does the best that he can with the material, but there’s very little interesting about Sivana as a human being rather than as a concept. There’s something very charming in the opening sequence, and how singlemindedly it establishes Sivana’s character and motivation; his father and brother are almost cartoonishly evil in their bullying of the young child, and the sequence of events leading him to embrace his darkside is almost comically pointed. However, the rest of the film does little to build on or develop this point.

A sweet story.

This isn’t a real problem, because the heart of Shazam! quite rightly belongs to the twin characters of Billy Batson and Freddie Freeman. Batson and Freeman are two kids who happen to luck into superpowers. Batson and Freeman effectively give Shazam! the license to look on the spectacle of superhero comics with wonder and awe, and to luxuriate in being a superhero. Shazam! is a movie which marvels at details as innocuous as the primary character’s ability to launch lightning bolts from his fingers or to catch a falling bus with his bare hands. The wonders of computer-generated animation and the arms race in superhero storytelling has rendered these sorts of things almost commonplace, packaged as standard with the stock superhero template. It is great to let them breathe.

Shazam! also benefits greatly from its willingness to embrace colour. Much has been made of the desaturated colour schemes of the DCEU, the choice serving as a lightning rod for the criticism that the films are too “dark.” While this assessment is overly simplistic, there is something very appropriate about the use of rich reds and deep blues in Shazam! Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre ensures that the colours pop off the screen, while costume designer Leah Butler dresses Batson in bright shades of red even before he connects with his superheroic alter ego. Again, Shazam! consciously embraces the childish wonder of superheroes; as Captain Marvel, Zachary Levi looks almost like a live action cartoon, muscle wrapped in spandex in the brightest shades imaginable..

Indeed, in keeping with the feeling that Shazam! is something of a superhero throwback, there’s a sense in which director David Sandberg is positioning the film more in line with the beloved children’s films of the eighties. While Sandberg might initially seem an odd choice for the film, he pitches the movie half-way between Scott Derrickson’s direction of Doctor Strange and Eli Roth’s work on The House With a Clock In Its Walls. There are moments when Shazam! feels like a superhero answer to the kinds of films kids and teenagers would watch until the VHS tape wore out; the wizard’s lair looks like something from The Goonies or Big Trouble in Little China, while the film is always keenly aware of its status as a spiritual follow-up to Big.

Again, this allows Shazam! to play with tropes and beats of cinematic superhero stories that have largely been brushed aside by the modern template codified by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In particular, Shazam! devotes a considerable amount of its run-time to superhero training montages – with a particularly delightful sequence set to Don’t Stop Me Now. It evokes Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or the triumphant Driving with the Top Down sequence from the original Iron Man, which remains a high watermark in pure superheroic joy within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, Sivana largely feels superfluous during these early sequences. Few superhero movies can generate the joy that Shazam! takes in the image of its superhero busking with his electricity-blasting hands.

A touching moment.

To be fair, it is clear that Sandberg understands the particularities of the modern superhero blockbuster. As with Wonder Woman, it is interesting how much of the cinematic DC universe remains shaped and informed by Zack Snyder, even after efforts to downplay his influence on Justice League. For his scenes of spectacle and scale, Sandberg employs Man of Steel as a clear frame of reference, which is a shrewd choice. However controversial and divisive (and flawed) that movie might be, it skillfully managed to translate a sense of almost biblical awe to the screen. The opening sequence of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice remains one of the most visceral (and evocative) action sequences in twenty-first century superhero cinema.

Shazam! consciously borrows the cinematic language of Man of Steel as Captain Marvel and Sivana pummel one another across and through Philadelphia, capturing a sense of momentum and force that is often absent from cinematic superhero showdowns. However, Sandberg also uses this framework in a way that allows him to have fun. So much of the charm of Shazam! lies in the juxtaposition of childish wonder with the superhero template, and so it is both hilarious and appropriate that so many of these knockdown no-holds-barred brawls inevitably end with the hero and villain wrestling one another through a toy store. (In keeping with the character’s red-and-white motif, Santa Claus becomes an unlikely recurring character.)

That said, Shazam! does run into problems in its final third, when it strips out a lot of the wonder and curiosity to make room for a more conventional superhero climax. For most of its runtime, Shazam! is tightly focused on Billy Batson. The film affords the teenager a very clear character arc, as he struggles to find his place with his foster family and to come to terms with the sense of parental abandonment that informs so much of his identity. It is a fairly standard story, another example of modern cinema’s fixation on found families, but Shazam! hits all of its marks. Shazam! pays off Billy’s big emotional beats in a triumphant manner, clearly positioning his final confrontation with Sivana as the culmination of his journey.

However, the problem is that things very quick escalate from there, in a manner that doesn’t feel entirely organic or logical. The climax of Shazam! effectively multiples the level of action on display, but at the cost of diffusing the film’s focus. The final confrontation between Batson and Sivana devolves into broad fanservice, incorporating a whole host of elements from the mythos that do not feel properly seeded and established within the context of the film’s own narrative. There is a lot of this at the climax; as the film very quickly establishes a very specific set of “rules” for how its magic works at the last possible moment, often with only a quick snippet of voice-over to explain how the characters are justifying massive leaps in logic in the middle of a high-stakes crisis.

Remember to floss, kids.

There is something cynical in all of this, a sense in which the film is bowing to the demands of the modern blockbuster superhero film. The climax of Shazam! might be described as “toyetic”, and there is something about the last act development that feels coldly calculated rather than spontaneously embraced. Indeed, the climaxes convoluted sprawling superpowered brawl is all but set up with the introduction of the seven deadly sins as Sivana’s supernatural muscle; establishing a threat that invites a larger response than just a single superhero facing down evil. The problem with the strange and jarring developments in the movie’s final act is not that they feel like clumsy late additions, but rather that the movie has always known that they were coming and held them back anyway.

Perhaps this isn’t the worst thing. Maybe those fun and playful first two acts of Shazam!, with their relatively tight focus on Batson and Freeman, justify the decision not to set up or foreshadow that inevitable escalation in the home stretch. Perhaps offloading that clutter into the final act of the film freed up the space in the first two acts that allowed Shazam! to truly soar. If Shazam! was always going to have the sort of stock over-stuffed and over-extended third act that seems a feature of the modern blockbuster superhero film, then perhaps the conscious choice to contain that clutter was the best way to approach the situation. Still, it is a shame that Shazam! can’t retain its tightness of focus through to the closing credits.

In its best moment, Shazam! is fun, playful, and giddy. It is a loving ode to the superhero genre, embracing the childlike wonder that allowed comic books to convince generations of readers that a man could fly. It is just a shame about the ending.

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