The most consistent praise of I’ve heard of Shazam! since it’s release is that it’s “fun” and “light-hearted” and it steers away from the darkness and gloom of much of the live-action DC Universe.
WARNING: MAJOR SHAZAM! SPOILERS BELOW
That’s only half-true.
It’s one-half fun (maybe a little less than that given Zachery Levi’s screen-time). The other half is a straight-out nearly R-rated horror movie. Yes, parents, take that PG-13 rating absolutely seriously and ignore all the “it’s fun” reviews.
And the issue that no one is talking about that frustrates me is related to the transformation of the Shazamily.
Not because the idea of is bad. The Shazamily is a terrific addition to Shazam, adding new and inclusive heroes to the mix, and it ties directly to the wonderful lesson of the found family.
But it’s also problematic because each member of the team is transformed into their stunningly perfect physical selves. The boys are all handsome, the girls are beautiful, and excess weight is trimmed off Eugene, so he’s perfect.
An interesting message to send to kids who can’t transform, that their heroes will never look like them.
All this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the movie at all. I did love it. But only at times. The tonal shifts, the plotting issues, and the body-morphing problems all put me in the camp of “eh, it was only okay overall.”
True, compared to the rest of the DCU, save Wonder Woman (haven’t seen Aquaman yet), it’s a masterpiece. But it goes in as many wrong directions as it does in right directions.
The Tonal Shifts in Shazam!
Everything to do with Sivana clearly shows director David F. Sanberg’s horror roots, so much so that I thought the prologue with Sivana as a child was the beginning of a Joker movie preview. This beginning is darkly lit, it features verbal child abuse, a horrific car crash, and a fairly graphic depiction of an injured adult.
Having fun yet, kids?
And Sivana’s arc continues to behave as if it’s in a separate movie. When we see him as an adult (aside: Mark Strong should have been the live-action DC Universe’s Lex Luthor), he’s obsessed with being rejected as a child, so much so that he’s found all the other kids who were also rejected by the wizard. This is an interesting idea, that a community of rejected kids would find each other as adults. I thought we’d get a nuanced portrait of Sivana as their leader, someone who gave them hope that they were worth it after all, made them feel entitled to those powers.
Hahaha. Silly thought. Because the movie immediately moves past that intriguing element to have Sivana find the piece that opens the door to Shazam’s domain. This happens after an intelligent scientist calls him on the obsession. Naturally, she simply crumbles to death, like in a horror movie, because… I don’t know? To show us Sivana is evil, I guess. (No one else crumbles after touching the door.)
Once Sivana gets his powers, they’re pretty dull basic movie monsters. Greed doesn’t incite people to do anything out of greed. He’s simply a magic monster. There’s no nuance to these Seven Deadly Sins. (And, yes, you can put nuance into a superhero movie. Witness the Skrull leader’s comment in Captain Marvel about his hands “being filthy” with the war. That suggests a great deal and it only takes one line.)
The horror continues as Sivana strides into a board meeting, where it’s revealed his father survived the accident but he’s paralyzed. This sequence is closer to R-rated than PG-13, given one of the Sins bites off the head off a character on-screen during the assault, not to mention the person tossed out the window, and the final slaughter of Dad.
The Body Issues in Shazam!
The movie digs into this a little bit as Freddie yells at Billy for failing to use his powers properly. Freddie, who is disabled, wants what Billy has, to be a hero without his disability. It’s a natural want for a kid and Billy’s callous about it. Yes, this is part of Billy’s journey toward being a hero, but it also brings up a question: Freddie is clearly hero material. So why the heck didn’t the old wizard call him instead of all those kids that were tossed aside? Super-bad spell, Shazam, and also you’re pretty much a dick for raising those kids’ hopes and dashing them instantly. (I go back to lack of subtlety with Sivana—a hint that the wizard wasn’t right about this, that his spell was less than perfect, and it further injured kids emotionally, would have been nice. But the issue isn’t raised at all in the movie, making Shazam as much of an ass as Elsa’s parents in Frozen.)
But, onto the transformation of the Shazamily: if Billy can transform his family into heroes, and they have magical powers assigned to them, why do they all have to be transformed into superheroes as supermodels? Why are the girls svelte and gorgeous, the guys all built and similarly handsome?
The message here is that this is the body type of superheroes. No one who looks like Pedro Peña grown-up, nobody with less than six-pack abs, no one less than someone who would turn heads walking down the street out of costume, is good enough to be a superhero.
You may say “well, the kids transformed into who they want to look like!” (Not that this is in the movie, as Billy, for certain, has no control what he looks like post-transformation.) But that speaks to our society’s obsession with the perfect body type.
This is a problem inherent in the superhero genre, yes, and it’s in the comics, yes, but this particular transformation on the big screen drives it home hard and it’s not subtle at all.
As for Freddie’s disability disappearing, obviously, that’s wish-fulfillment, but I wish it also would have been explored more than it was.
The Plotting Issues in Shazam!
Superhero movies are always going to have plot holes. The trick is to make the movie is so enjoyable that you don’t notice. Shazam! itself has a light enough concept that I might have been able to hand-wave plot issues, but then Sivana’s story brings in the real world in a big way, so there goes my suspension of disbelief.
For instance, when Billy is lost, why can’t they find his mother at all? Surely, there’s going to be a record of his birth, plus the police would want her for child endangerment charges, once it’s clear she did abandon the boy. Billy is a cute kid. Someone—a neighbor, a relative, etc., would know who his mother is and be able to find her. Billy goes at finding his mother with a list. It takes him a while to work their way down that list, but a detective, with all their resources, could do it faster, plus they’d want Billy’s mother to be charged or sign off on foster care. (Most state child agencies put a priority on reuniting families.)
None of this part of the plot made sense to me, even with his mother having a different name. If the story had been that Billy was abandoned, then his mother was found, and signed over custody, with criminal charges dropped, and Billy didn’t know, I could buy that. (Though one wonders why no caseworker told Billy this after he continued running away.) The scene with Billy and his mother was well-done but perhaps a little too abrupt. I could have used more of this, rather than time spent with heads being bitten off.
Other plotting issues:
Freddie is a much better candidate for the Shazam powers initially.
There’s the scene where two kids beat up Freddie in front of several adults and half the school and nothing is ever done about that. I don’t believe that one for a second.
As for the carnival, I just rolled my eyes. In December. In Philadelphia? C’mon.
Again, these are issues I would have hand-waved if the movie itself didn’t keep bringing in the real world.
What I Liked About Shazam!
I love the idea of the found family, especially such an inclusive found family. That’s my jam. That transformation at the climax was a terrific statement of how powerful found families can be.
Everything with Zachery Levi was awesome and as much fun as everyone says.
The way Billy finding his mother was handled was poignant and worked for this character. Billy gave up the fantasy he had of his mother for the fantasy of his real family.
But, overall, Shazam! a seriously flawed movie that floats on charm about half the time, and hits hard with a thud when it turns into a horror movie in the other half.