Saturday, April 06, 2019

"Shazam!": review

"Big" meets "Superman" is how 2019's "Shazam!" is being billed by the talking heads. Directed by David F. Sandberg and starring Zachary Levi as Shazam, a.k.a. the adult form of Billy Batson (played as a teen by dimple-cheeked Asher Angel), "Shazam!" is the story of a troubled teen who was abandoned by his mother when he was only four. Despite having a basically good heart, Billy harbors the sorts of bitterness and trust issues that come with being a foster kid who pushes people away and gets shunted from family to family. Batson is chosen and summoned by an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) because the latter is growing weak and needs someone to be his champion/replacement. Shazam is the last of a council of powerful beings who have kept a group of demons called the Seven Deadly Sins imprisoned for ages. Weakening and in search of someone to take on his role, Shazam first summons young Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) in 1974, but the wizard finds Sivana's easily tempted heart to be unworthy. Sivana spends the ensuing decades in search of the path back to the wizard's lair, a cave containing the Rock of Eternity, source of magic in our world. Meanwhile, in the present day, Shazam summons Billy and passes his ancient power to the young man. What this means is that fourteen-year-old Billy can speak aloud the name "Shazam!" and transform into a superhero with an adult's body. It's a magical form of instant, repeatable puberty.

Billy is going through this eldritch tribulation while also trying to adapt to life with his newest foster family, which is headed by hulking-but-benevolent father Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews—look up his bio and understand why I keep mentally labeling him as "Tony Rocky Horror") and sympathetic mom Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans). Billy's new siblings are inveterate hugger Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman, cute and hilarious), older-sis Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), bulky-and-laconic big bro Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand), and shrimpy techie/gamer Eugene Choi (Ian Chen). But the sibling who figures most prominently in this story is scrawny, bullied Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, whom you might remember from "It"), a superhero fanboy (remember: in this universe, superheroes exist) who is ecstatic to discover that his new foster brother Billy has become an actual superhero. Billy relies on Freddy's knowledge of superheroes to help him explore his new powers. Freddy, meanwhile, tries to benefit from knowing the new Shazam as a way to escape being bullied.

While all this is going on, Thaddeus Sivana—who started off as a runty kid scorned by his father and older brother—has become the vengeance-minded Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong), and he has found the mystical path back to the wizard's lair. Once there, he liberates the demonic Seven Deadly Sins and takes a glowing sphere called the Eye of Sin for himself: the orb mystically lodges itself into Sivana's eye socket (without replacing his biological eye), giving him the classic look from the comic books. As long as at least one of the seven demons inhabits Sivana's body, and as long as he remains in possession of the Eye of Sin, Sivana is effectively as strong as Shazam, and he is much more focused and studious than Billy Batson when it comes to mastering his many new powers. Sivana learns from the demons that he must find Shazam because only Shazam can defeat him.

We have several converging and interwoven plot lines, then: Billy must learn to live with his new foster family, but he's also still looking for his birth mother. Sivana continues his study of magic, but he's also keen to find Shazam, "the chosen one," in order to defeat him and take his powers for himself. Billy and Freddy, meanwhile, have to deal with bullies at high school, Billy's tendency to skip school, and the exploration of Billy/Shazam's superpowers. Keeping in mind that Billy is just a kid, he doesn't always use his powers in the noblest way. After learning that he has the Zeus-like power to shoot lightning from his hands, Billy engages in some street busking, raising money to buy soda and candy (Billy and Freddy discover that beer tastes like vomit when Billy, as the adult-looking Shazam, buys some beer for them both to try). A stray lightning bolt hits a bus and causes it to careen over the edge of an overpass; Shazam manages to catch the falling bus, but as Freddy points out, the mess was entirely the hero's fault. Learning about his powers, and their moral implications, is an uphill battle for Billy.

The word "Shazam" is an acronym:
S: wisdom of Solomon
H: strength of Hercules
A: stamina of Atlas (including invulnerability)
Z: power of Zeus (including his ability to shoot lightning)
A: courage of Achilles
M: speed of Mercury (including flight)
The wizard tells Billy, when he's transferring his powers to the boy, that Billy's adult incarnation is a manifestation of his "best self," and it's up to Billy to do good with his new powers. The powers themselves seem mostly congruent with what Superman can do, but they derive from magic, not Kryptonian physiology. I noticed that Shazam's powers also seem a lot more flashy and noisy; the transformation into Shazam is always accompanied by a lightning blast, a fact that allows for some lightning-related jokes. Knowing that Billy can't utter "Shazam!" without deactivating his superhero alter ego, Freddy tries to come up with alternate names that Shazam can call himself while he's in his superhero form. My favorite is probably "Thunder Crack," which makes Billy wince and observe that that's "a butt thing." Another name that doesn't work is "Captain Sparkle-fingers," which sounds vaguely creepy and assaultive in the #MeToo era.

The humor in "Shazam!" is mostly aimed at younger audiences, so it can't get too edgy. About the closest the movie gets to edgy humor is a moment when the old wizard in the cave commands Billy to "put your hand on my staff," to which Billy responds, "Gross." Pedo humor! Get it? Sitting with a Korean audience, I had to wonder whether the Freudian comedy of that moment survived the translation into Korean subtitles. I don't recall hearing any laughter. (In fact, I often wonder how sensitive Koreans are to Freudian humor.* I suspect that Koreans who hang around Westerners gain some sensitivity and awareness. At the same time, I have to admit that my own limited linguistic ability probably keeps me from a deeper awareness of the subtly raunchy side of Korean humor.**)

The movie also sneaks in a whole raft of sly references to other films and media. Postmodernists call this intertextuality, and superhero movies in particular are full of it. The more obvious references are to the other DC superheroes like Superman, Batman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman. But there's a cute, if on-the-nose, reference to the movie "Big" that'll be easy to catch for anyone who has seen the 1988 Tom Hanks film (good God, was that over thirty years ago?). There may also have been a subtle reference to the fact that Shazam was the first Captain Marvel (yep—DC got there first, but they relinquished the name), but I'm only half-sure I caught that. Along with the references, the movie also takes at least two distinct shots at the other Justice League heroes: in one case, we see a kid standing in front of a window and playing with action figures of Batman and Superman; when Shazam and Sivana collide in midair in front of the kid, he drops his toys, all thought of the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel forgotten. In another case, Billy turns to his foster siblings and says he wouldn't be much of a hero if he couldn't save his own family—a possible dig at Superman and his legendary inability to save his own adoptive father from death.

Overall, I liked "Shazam!" It had its heart in the right place, and it had a good twin message about both family values and the value of family. I felt it was targeted to a much younger age group, but it contained enough of a story, told in a gleefully rollicking tone, for an old fart like me to enjoy it. Enthusiastic Zachary Levi gets a ton of credit for holding up the narrative; he doesn't actually appear until we're almost done with the movie's first reel, and that's about when the plot gains some momentum. Mark Strong, who's great with pretty much any role you give him, somehow manages a balance between Shatnerian scenery chewing and deadly seriousness. He obviously had fun with his role, and it shows. I also have to tip my hat to all the actors and actresses of the Vasquez foster family; they could all have been annoying child actors, but they acquitted themselves well, convincingly portraying life in a foster home.

I had heard that "Shazam!" was a fairly low-budget movie compared to other superhero films, and a $90 million budget is, by today's standards, fairly low. But the money was put to good use, and since this was basically a superhero comedy, any lapses in the special effects were forgivable: the humor more than made up for the visual flaws. While we're on the topic of special effects, though, I should note that the movie has a moment or two of what I'd now describe as "Thanos-dusting," i.e., people turning to dust, fraying, and disappearing. Thanks to "Avengers: Infinity War," it's now impossible to dissociate this once-classic way of killing people from Thanos's snap.

Let's talk about two problems I had with the film—one of which I mentally worked out for myself, the other of which still bothers me a bit. The first problem I had was that, whenever Billy Batson transformed into Shazam, he didn't seem to incarnate the virtues that went with the SHAZAM acronym. He was strong, sure, but he wasn't particularly wise (Solomon), and for a long stretch of the movie, he wasn't all that courageous (Achilles). At first, this bothered me, but I began to realize that the movie was at pains to show that Shazam's powers and virtues weren't immediately accessible to Billy, who begins by fumbling about with his large, clumsy adult hands, and who bangs his head on low door frames because he's not used to how tall he's become. As the movie progresses, Billy-as-Shazam becomes more accustomed to this adult version of himself, and the clumsiness eventually vanishes. The same could be said for things like Billy's courage: we can track the increase in his bravery along his several encounters with Dr. Sivana. As for wisdom... I assume Billy will grow into that as well, perhaps in the sequel (which I understand will star The Rock as Shazam's nemesis Black Adam, a being who inherited the ancient powers but used them for evil). So in the end, what seemed to be a problem turned out to be a non-problem.

The second thing that stuck in my craw was Billy's Harry Potter problem. Billy Batson becomes the chosen one because the wizard sees Billy as a person who is pure of heart... except the Billy we meet is kind of an asshole. This same problem has been talked about in relation to Harry Potter, whom Dumbledore describes as filled with the one quality Voldemort hates: love. But Harry isn't always a consistently loving being—not at all: at the end of the sixth book, Harry actually tries to throw both the Cruciatus curse (extreme torture) and the Avada Kedavra curse (death) at Snape, who expertly blocks both attempts. You could argue that Harry might not have meant either curse, but he seemed pretty in extremis at that point in the plot. Harry has also shown hatred for his rival Draco Malfoy, so it's an open question as to just how purely loving Harry actually is. "Shazam!" does a good job of explaining why Billy Batson behaves the way he does during the first half of the movie, but even if Billy's problems have external causes, this doesn't exculpate Billy, who is a human being with free will, and thus responsible for his own acts. Unlike the first problem explained above, I had a much harder time untangling this conundrum, and I still do. I'm not convinced Billy Batson is really all that pure. In fact, if I recall correctly, Billy tells the wizard this.

Come to think of it, there's a third problem: Billy never gets morally tested. The wizard had tried, over the years, to find possible inheritors of his power, including Thaddeus Sivana, and in each case, the potentials were given a test of temptation, which they all apparently failed. It could be that the wizard had become so desperate that he no longer saw a need to test Billy. It could also be that the wizard was perceptive enough to see deeply into Billy's character and recognize his fundamental goodness, hidden beneath all that youthful pain and strife. I don't know. All I can say is that Billy got lucky by not having to be tested.

Aside from the themes of family values and the value of family, I couldn't help noticing that "Shazam!" was laced with enough Christian tropes to make Christianity a subtext of the movie. Christmas music ("Do You Hear What I Hear?") accompanies the opening scene, in which a young Thaddeus Sivana survives a car crash that injures his father. Sivana, while riding in the family car, gets teleported into the wizard's cave, where he sees the seven demons, trapped in statue form, that represent the Seven Deadly Sins enumerated in Catholicism. When Billy Batson is first seen looking for his birth mother, he walks past a Nativity scene before knocking on the front door and encountering an African-American woman. The second time Billy seeks out his birth mom, he goes to the seventh floor of an apartment building and knocks on a door numbered 707. Note, too, that every time Billy says "Shazam" and transforms into his "best self," he is essentially losing his normal self to become a hero. Each evocation of the superhero is effectively a sort of self-sacrifice—also a very Christian value. The movie also contains moments of family prayer around the dinner table, and although no one ever actually uses words and phrases like "God" or "Dear Lord," it's understood that the Vasquez family is evoking the Judeo-Christian God. Finally, it's interesting that the old wizard tests potential inheritors of his power by tempting them—something we see in the Christian gospels when Jesus is in the wilderness. Does this mean that the movie, overall, is smuggling some sort of Christian message to its audience? I can't go that far; all I can do is report what my religious-studies sensibilities thought they caught from the film. Given how the movie also leans on Greek mythology (not to mention a multiverse cosmology), I'd say that any Christian tropes in the film have, at least, some competition.

Again, "Shazam!" is essentially a comedy, and an enjoyable one at that. As with those Marvel movies, it's not a good idea to think too hard about the details—the physics, the logic of magical powers, etc. Just enjoy the movie for its tone, its grander themes, and its message, which is a good-hearted one. I'll be curious to see how this quirky superhero gets shoehorned into the larger Justice League universe (the ending credits seem to imply something about that), and the best compliment I can give the story is that it makes me hungry to see the sequel. Kudos to the actors for their performances, and kudos to the director and the writers for putting together a funny, fast-paced, earnest adventure.***

*Watch this video showing Korean ladies reacting to Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" song and not realizing that the anaconda is a metaphor for a guy's dick. Are twenty-something Korean ladies truly that unaware of the Freudian dimension of human interaction (for cultural reasons or whatever), or are they merely feigning virginal innocence for the camera? These days, Korean society is still sexually conservative in the public sphere, but twenty-something Korean women have usually been around the block, premaritally speaking, to about the same extent as Western women, so I don't really buy the seeming shock.

**Has anyone ever published a guide to raunchy Korean humor? Not just dirty jokes, which are obvious, but subtler things, e.g., verbal cues that trigger certain naughty thoughts, such as how "[touch] my staff" almost immediately evokes a dick among the dirty-minded in the West.

***One linguistic quibble: if SHAZAM is an acronym based on the Roman alphabet, and the ancient council to which the old wizard Shazam belonged dated back to a time before such an alphabet existed, how exactly would that acronym have originated? To be sure, acronyms themselves are an ancient concept/technique: look at the fish symbol used in early Christianity: the Greek word ichthys (fish) was an acronym for Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, i.e., "Jesus Christ, God-Son, Savior." In the Roman pantheon, the supreme god was called Jupiter, not Zeus, so in the Latin alphabet, that letter of the acronym would have been an "I." Go ahead and make sense of this in the comments.

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