I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Well, here we have it. With Shazam!, a comic-book movie has finally made it explicit that the superhero story, at its most reductive, is nothing more than an adolescent-male power fantasy. Fourteen-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is chosen by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou: Captain Marvel, Serenity) to be his champion, complete with a grownup body (Zachary Levi: Thor: Ragnarok, Tangled) clad in spandex and with all sorts of caped-crusader abilities, such as “bullet immunity” and superstrength; all Billy needs to do is shout “Shazam!” in order to shift back and forth between his usual teen scrawniness and the magical adult-sized badassery. And what does he do with this unexpected boon? He mostly shows up school bullies, buys beer, goes to a strip club, and goofs around with exploring the extent of his superpowers, even to the point where that sometimes puts innocent people in danger.
Small favors: the movie doesn’t actually take us inside the strip club.
Now, I’m sure that anyone who is now or who has ever been a teenaged boy will delight in how — finally and at last! — the gloves have come off and the curtain of pretense has been lifted and they can finally revel in being seen by Hollywood. But adolescent-male power fantasies is pretty much all Shazam! has going for it. There’s not much else happening here. There’s no larger resonance; Shazam! isn’t actually about anything. This is taking place in a world in which superheroes are real — Batman and Superman exist, this is made crystal clear — and yet it doesn’t feel like it. (That would be an amazing thing to explore: what is the world like for ordinary people when alien demigods and vigilante crime fighters are shaping culture? Instead we get tacky references to Harry Potter and Star Wars.) And I’m sure some will insist that it’s good that the comic-book movie is “fun again” — as if comic-book stories haven’t been overtly about punching Nazis and other social-justice matters from their very beginnings. For someone who needs at least a little bit of meat in their fantasies, Shazam! is a disappointment.
And Shazam! isn’t even simply pure exhilarating fun. Because nothing really matters here, that seems to have been an excuse for screenwriters Henry Gayden (the extremely derivative Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (the unclever meta of Goosebumps) to be lazy and director David F. Sandberg (the shockingly misjudged Annabelle: Creation) to indulge in cheesiness. (Um, there are some really cheap-looking FX here.) Right from the get-go, the entire premise of Billy’s elevation to superhero is confused at best and suspect at worst. The wizard who needs a champion has been trying for decades, at least, to find one, but no one has been worthy enough. Yet the movie doesn’t bother to let us know — and this matters, hugely — whether, once the wizard finally accepts Billy as his champion, the wizard is merely so desperate to Shazam-ize anyone that he overlooks Billy’s unworthiness or whether there’s supposed to be something about Billy that elevates him above the many other humans the wizard has tested. From what we do see of Billy’s character, both before and after his chosenness, he’s certainly not a bad person, but there doesn’t seem to be anything spectacularly, uniquely good about him, either. We cannot even deduce from everything that follows which is the case with Billy. Which is a problem. If you squint hard enough, you might discern a motif of “With great power comes great responsibility” — although of course no one can articulate that because Shazam is a DC character and Spider-Man, who is famously taught that lesson, is from the other place — but that is even more watered down because we have no idea upon what basis Billy was granted his superpowers, and with what mindset he is using them.
Oh, and there’s this, too: In a montage sequence, we see a succession of other people talking about their meeting with the wizard and subsequent rejection as champion, and those people come in a wide range of genders and colors. For all those who complain about how superhero movies have allegedly gotten too concerned with “diversity” lately, this is what a sop to that notion actually looks like, both within the context of the story as well as in the larger cultural milieu in which this movie exists. Like, “Hey, we tried to find a woman or a person of color for the part, but only the white guy measured up. Sorrynotsorry!”
It’s a slow-moving slog for the movie to get Billy from playing superhero to an encounter with the ill-conceived putative villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong: Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Miss Sloane), who is, in fact, one of the wizard’s long-ago spurned would-be champions. It’s a rejection that Sivana never got over, and now he wants to steal the Shazam powers from Billy. Except… Sivana has his own powers, absorbed from the manifestations of the seven deadly sins that the wizard had been containing. (This movie is such a mishmash of nonsense.) It’s not at all clear what powers Sivana lacks — he seems to have all the same ones that Billy has — or what he will do if he succeeds. The movie tries to make a joke out of its own low stakes, with Sivana monologuing about his evil plans in a way that suggests we don’t even need to hear them to know what he wants. But this comes way too late in the movie, and seems more a justification for not developing Sivana as any kind of authentic, plausible character than anything else. We’re meant to just take him as a generic villain… and I guess it’s fair that he’s as generic as the rest of the clichés here.