Here’s my non-spoilery partial review of Shazam, and a statement of darkness and light in the DC Universe. You may think there are spoilers here, but if you’ve watched the trailers, and are familiar with the more recent comic book runs of the characters, nothing here will surprise you.
But if you’re not familiar with the character or recent comic books and want to be totally surprised at the movie’s direction, stop reading now.
Still here? OK, let’s go.
I won’t reveal if there are any direct Zack Snyder influences on Shazam (psst! Stick around through the credits.) But if the wayward director has a legacy in the DCEU, it’s for playing up the nature of his heroes as they were originally created. Jerry Seigel wrote Superman to reflect the experiences of immigrants in America. He sprang from the minds of two Jewish kids from Cleveland who were bullied, and this was their idea of empowerment. Siegel and Joe Shuster were first generation Jewish-Americans, and their families were watching those they left behind in Europe oppressed and then disappear in a very scary way with the rise of the Nazis and fascism. So, Superman lived for them and other immigrants who desperately needed a crusader, if only a fictional one. Superman was, and is, about the immigrant experience, an experience that is alternately a dark and hopeful one. Snyder’s portrayal of Superman varied wildly from what the American people were used to. He wasn’t the straight conservative man of George Reeves or the smiling innocent boy scout of Christopher Reeve. He was the immigrant desperately trying to prove he was good enough to be here, even willing to sacrifice himself for his adopted world. This textured darkness, honest, and accurate portrayal of his creator’s origin was difficult for many to accept (eew! He’s WoKe!), and Man of Steel suffered for it at the box office.
While Batman was created with dark revenge motivations, he was gradually domesticated until essentially becoming a smiling and friendly neighborhood cop by the 1950s. It wasn’t until the end of the campy 1960s tv series that DC finally began moving the character back to his roots in the late 60’s/early 70s with the most notable creative team being Neal Adams and Denny ‘O Neil. But even then, he wasn’t the answer to Alexander Knox’s 1989 Batman movie question, “What do you suppose something like this does to a kid?” To that end, it might be safe to say Batman was conceived in 1939 but not actually born until Frank Miller‘s 1986 ‘The Dark Knight Returns.’ As influential as that title was, Warners still couldn’t resist gradually blending elements of the 1960s series into their late 80s-early 90s movie run, culminating in 1997’s Batman and Robin, a highly disappointing return to the campy vision most Americans had of the character. And while Christopher Nolan‘s theatrical run was notably darker and highly successful, it ended as Marvel’s funnier and lighter universe was being launched – a universe I begrudgingly admit has had more mass appeal than anything DC had done in 30 years or so. I believe a case can be made that by the time we saw Snyder’s Batman on the big screen, people had been conditioned for funny one-liners. And no amount of deep literary allegories and Christian symbolism could save Batman v Superman from a general audience who would rather laugh than think. I might have been willing to sacrifice Superman’s dark motivations for the sake of a hit movie, but Batman IS dark personified. No way he should have been written any other way.
While the most subversive elements of Aquaman is Oceanmaster’s environmentalist motivation and Mera’s feminist statement of independence, Wonder Woman was subversion personified. Inspired by the 20th century’s most notable feminists, not since her earliest comics (and a few runs along the way) have we seen the Amazon Princess’s true impetus. While the 70s TV show’s theme song had lyrics that called for stopping ‘a war with love,’ Patty Jenkin’s hero did just that, with some healthy ass kicking along the way. If Jenkin’s Wonder Woman was dark, that darkness exists in her knowledge – and every woman’s watching – that she couldn’t go home again. It was a bold statement that most women instinctively understood – when a woman takes a stand, she has much more to lose than a man does if she fails or is defeated. Men saw a kickass woman. Women were saying, “she’s really taking a chance in defying her mother and society to go with her gut and if she’s wrong, she’s fucked!”
Captain Marvel’s early adventures were just as violent as other superhero tales of the time, but they always retained a certain level of childhood innocence and humor. Today some might call it a cheese factor. Even though his nickname ‘the big red cheese’ has nothing to do with that aspect of Captain Marvel, it would be easy to assume it does. He did launch in the pages of Fawcett Publication’s Whiz Comics, as in ‘Gee Whiz!’ after all. It was during this time he was the most popular comic book hero, eclipsing Batman’s and Superman’s sales. The Cheesy zeitgeist of Captain Marvel even bled into popular culture. Believe it or not, people use to actually say ‘Holy Moly’ to express surprise and astonishment. Fawcett Publications had been shut down for a decade before ‘Shazam!’ became the infectious catchphrase of loveable but goofy character Gomer Pyle in the Andy Griffith show. And while the character has had some dark moments since DC resurrected it, specifically during the New 52 run, the character has been predictably light.
Some have dropped partial spoilers claiming the new film is based on The New 52 run. As someone who has seen an early, incomplete cut, I can confirm that. If you’re familiar with The New 52 run, the movie trailers also confirm that, too, so there’s nothing spoilery about that statement. The New 52 portrayed Billy Batson as a troubled child kicked around from foster home to foster home. Deeply affected by the death of his parents, he became quite bitter, and treated most people terribly. He’s the working class’s Bruce Wayne. While Bruce has a family fortune and loving butler to take care of him, Billy Batson’s story reflects what most of ours would have been in a similar circumstance. Long story short, this rotten kid’s journey to becoming Captain Marvel (or Shazam, in case Marvel, Inc. is reading) is a somewhat dark one until he reaches his ultimate redemption. Yes, this sounds dark, and in many ways, it is, but it’s handled in a very human, and humorous, way.
Many have said Shazam is like the Tom Hank’s movie Big. And that’s fair. It also brings to mind the early 80s ABC series The Greatest American Hero in that the hero has difficulty controlling and using his powers to great comedic effect. In my opinion, though, it has more of a Goonies feel to it. We have a group of outcast kids on the adventure of their lives, encountering some scary moments, but ultimately prevailing as only kids can do on a Saturday afternoon before their dads call them in for dinner. It’s a wonderful superhero coming of age story. If you grew up between 1977 and 1985, an amazingly magical time for movies, you’re going to be giddy over this film. Your kids will be giddy over this movie. The New 52 storyline retains just enough of the character’s goofy origin to please everyone. It’s easily the most enjoyable of the current crop of DC films, though not the most compelling. But that’s ok. Sometimes we just want to be kids.
Shazam! Scores with a Superhero ‘Goonies-like’ coming-of-age theme.