I finally got around to watching Shazam! this week. Despite having been a fan of Captain Marvel since his revival in 1973, and despite liking Zachary Levi in most of the things I’ve seen him in, I wasn’t really eager to see the film version. This is mostly because DC has had no clue how to handle the character for decades. My worst fears about the film were realized.
The first problem, of course, is that this isn’t Captain Marvel*.
Spoilers abound beyond this point, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you were warned.
Billy gets powered up by an astonishingly ineffectual wizard named Shazam, the last surviving member of a Wizard Council that used to do… something… about evil, but doesn’t anymore, and Shazam wants to hand the job off to somebody else, so he’s looking for a child (why a child? Because shut up, that’s why) to dump it on. Apparently, the wizard’s powers are sloppy enough that when he tries to summon a kid who is “pure of heart,” his enchantment just grabs any random kid it happens to find, who then gets tested and rudely discarded with intact memories of the incredibly traumatizing event. Apparently this happens several dozen times. Later, when Billy gets summoned, the wizard is basically trying a “Hail Mary” play, grabbing him at random and saying “you’ll have to do,” which serves to explain why Billy as Cap casually commits a robbery of an ATM, undercutting the whole “pure of heart” requirement. But then this Captain Marvel routinely behaves worse than Billy ever does.
I have to wonder if the six dead wizards on the Council were killed by Shazam’s bumbling.
Before he gains powers, Billy Batson is shown to be a smart, determined, self-reliant teenager. In his first scene, he stages a break-in of a store in order to attract the police, then locks them into the building so that he can get into their car to use their police computer to try to locate his mother. It’s a clever stunt, and it establishes Billy as clever and resourceful. When the wizard grants him massive power, he transforms into a dumb, irresponsible, money-obsessed, self-absorbed jackass.
Here’s the thing: the first of Captain Marvel’s powers is “the Wisdom of Solomon.” He’s supposed to be as wise as the man described as the wisest that ever lived. (Not smart, wise; there is a difference.) We never once see Captain Marvel exercise this power to the slightest degree, and in fact he is wiser, smarter, more decent, and more responsible, in short, more heroic, as Billy than in his idiot man-child form.
The other power he consistently fails to exercise is “the Courage of Achilles.” He’s braver as Billy. In fact, Dr. Sivana, the (terribly miscast and misconceived, but we’ll get to that) villain continually taunts him as a coward. Which he is.
The problem, obviously, is that the writers don’t know what wisdom and courage are, so they can’t possibly portray them on the screen. They don’t believe in the things that Captain Marvel stands for, so he stands for nothing. They would rather deprive their hero of 33% of his abilities than figure out what those abilities are and how to use them.
Of course, this has long been the problem with DC’s portrayal of Captain Marvel, ever since they decided to emphasize the idea that Captain Marvel is a teenager in a man’s body, the superhero version of Big. They miss the part that Billy as Cap is “Billy + Wisdom + Courage”; he’s a teenager with more wisdom than any other person on earth. The kind of wisdom that would lead him to think before speaking, and the kind of courage that would lead him to avoid making decisions based on fear. In other words, Billy as Captain Marvel is Billy as a good and smart adult; he’s the same person with a different outlook, just as adult you is still child you, but with the benefit of life experience. The one area where Cap would still be Billy would be romance; he would obviously uncomfortable and awkward in romantic situations, which would have been a good reason to include Sivana’s daughter Beautia, so there’s another missed opportunity.
Which brings us to the villain.
Here we get Mark Strong as a generic bad guy going by the name of Dr. Sivana. He’s bent out of shape over having been rejected by the wizard Shazam as potential champion. We learn that little kid Thad Sivana was dragged away from being yelled at and abused by his father and brother, off to the Rock of Eternity, to be yelled at and abused by the old wizard, then dumped back to be blamed for his father’s crippling car accident. I’d be pissed too. Sivana then devotes his life to finding a way back to wherever the wizard was, to try to get the powers that the Seven Deadly Sins promised him, but more importantly, to prove to himself and his nasty old dad that he’s not crazy and didn’t imagine the wizard and his lair. But that’s not the problem.
The problem is that Sivana was created to be the opposite of Captain Marvel, but there are two ways to take that; in the comics, he was the opposite in all ways; Cap is young, big, tall, powerful, good, and powered by magic; Sivana is old, skinny, short, physically weak, evil, and uses technology. He should have been played by Armin Shimerman.
The movie, sticking to that tired and stupid trope that the villain (a) has to be the mirror image of the hero, and (b) has to have their origin tied into the hero’s, turns Sivana into “Evil Captain Marvel Who Isn’t Black Adam” so that they can have the requisite brawl. Sivana’s got a generic power set ostensibly powered by the Seven Deadly Sins that have taken over his body through his eyeball.
Of course, the Sins frequently emerge to wreak havoc, but it’s generic havoc that any rampaging monster might produce; only one of the sins is ever really shown demonstrating any actions that relate to their nature. They are just a squadron of ugly beasties, with only a couple of brief shots showing us anything that might tell us which is which. Yeah, the fat one is Gluttony, and we might be able to remember which one is Wrath because he’s the one who’s breaking things the most, but which one is Sloth? Pride? Greed? Lust? Vanity? And how can we tell? They all look like the kind of indistinct monsters that the heroes usually slaughter on their way to facing the actual villain, with almost nothing to distinguish one from another.
So we have a bad guy being bad because reasons, powered by interchangeable CGI monsters who allegedly have unique specialties and personalities that we never see them display, all looking for the Wizard’s champion because shut up in order to I said shut up.
Meanwhile, Captain Marvel is acting like a crackhead; suddenly his mission to locate his long-lost parents is abandoned in favor of becoming a super-powered street busker. Naturally, this leads, due to plot-based stupidity, to Captain Marvel accidentally causing a dangerous accident and putting a lot of lives at risk, so that he can do a fairly lame job of saving the people he put in harm’s way in the first place. (We’ll ignore the obvious fact that being inside a falling bus that is suddenly stopped by the hero would be no different than being in one that hit the pavement; the passengers would all be broken bodies lying on the inside of the windshield.) All of this nonsense is there in order to provoke conflict with Billy’s fellow foster-kid Freddy Freeman, who is an expert on everything about superheroes except their purpose.
When the ostensible hero, who is only ever marginally heroic when he stumbles into a situation where he can hit somebody and then stand around waiting for his applause and rewards, finally encounters the villain, they pound on each other in the same kind of eye-candy brawl that we saw in every DC movie except the first three-quarters of Wonder Woman; a fight with no purpose and nothing at stake, fought because the villain showed up and challenged the hero, like the Undertaker challenging Stone Cold Steve Austin, and every bit as believable.
And this is why Marvel is beating DC in the movies.
Marvel heroes have a purpose, a mission, something they are trying to accomplish, a duty, a principle that they stand for. The villains have an agenda, a goal, something they want and a reason they want it. The conflict is inevitable because the hero’s purpose and the villain’s goal are in conflict. The fight is complicated by the fact that the villain doesn’t care who gets hurt, while the hero has to try to protect the innocent bystanders and the people who will be harmed by the villain’s plan. There are stakes. Consequences.
DC doesn’t do that.
DC looks at superheroes as an enhanced version of WWE; the Faces are good because we say so, the Heels are bad because their names and costumes are dark and scary, and they engage in endless clashes for no good reason, over and over, to prove who’s stronger. In such a world, the arrival of Superman would be the most terrifying thing that could ever happen, because good an evil are merely branding for the merch, not abiding principles to be defended and fought for. If you happen to live in Gotham or Metropolis or Fawcett, there is nothing to indicate that the alleged heroes are fighting on your behalf. They aren’t heroes and villains, they are dogs engaged in ritual combat to establish dominance. Gorillas deciding who will be the silverback.
But we don’t even get that much with Shazam. Once Billy gets powered up, he doesn’t want anything but money and applause. He doesn’t have a mission or a purpose, he doesn’t have Uncle Ben’s “with great power” speech; doesn’t have Tony Stark’s need for redemption, doesn’t have Captain America’s or Black Panther’s loyalty and duty to their countries. He just has six super attributes, two of which he absolutely refuses to engage.
Conversely, when Sivana finally finds the power he’s been searching for, he has no plan except to try to get more. He has no agenda, no goal, no purpose other than to punch the hero and get power. And what happens if he wins? Who knows? Certainly Sivana doesn’t.
Aside from the squandered opportunity to make a fun movie full of joy and hope, Shazam is disappointing because none of it matters.
Really, the best thing I can say about it is at least they got Mary and Freddy’s costumes right. The rest of the Captain Planet Planeteers were pretty much unnecessary, but they were a bad idea in the comics too.
Maybe someday somebody at DC will actually believe in the aspirations and ideals that superheroes represent, and not be paralyzed by fear that their pajama-wearing flying men will look silly, and then we can get a movie that matters. Truth is best told through seemingly silly and childish stories by people who have the courage to tell them sincerely.
* I’m calling him Captain Marvel because that was his name for 70+ years and I think DC was dumb to change it, and they never do settle on a name for him in the film anyway.