Shazam! (2019)

There is, of course, another Captain Marvel movie. And since I’m not party to any of the lawsuits over his name, I still get to call him that, even if his film can’t.

They made a running gag out of it. Which I actually like…individually. It’s just the collective weight of all the gags in this film that might cause a problem for…some people. I can see it happening. Especially since it already happened. But its happening is itself kind of on point for Billy Batson, since his life has been defined by jumping on trends either too early or too late. There. Done. Like and Subscribe, you know? Support the show on Patreon. It’s too hot to have all these lights going.

Oh, okay, fine. Like almost every other American publishing house in 1939 Fawcett Publications Incorporated looked upon the success that National Comics was enjoying with Superman and decided to break themselves off a piece of that. Writer Bill Parker came up with an idea for a superhero team of six individuals with powers granted unto them by six different classical myths, but executive fiat demanded Parker combine those characters into one. But then our old friend editorial fiat told him to combine these six characters into one. He was initially called Captain Thunder…until somebody discovered they’d been beaten to the trademark on that one. So even the running gag is itself a running gag from our universe, imported into Billy’s. So he became “Captain Marvelous”…until editorial fiat told them to shorten it down. Which is kind of ironic considering what would happen later…But the point is: Captain Marvel was already a deeply compromised artistic product from the start. And this did not stop him from becoming the most popular superhero of World War II.

And I don’t know…it’s easy for me to see why. Clark Kent was the dream of the self-conscious, office-bound dorks who created him: that lurking beneath our nerdy exteriors there was the potential for all of us to be a force for good. Billy Batson was the dream of the comic book dorks who were reading him at the time. He alone has the ability to walk in both the childhood and adult worlds. He alone has the ability to walk in both the childhood and adult worlds. For him they are separated, not by a massive gulf of years, but by a single word. A number of us still hold out hope that our obsessions with children’s media will confer some similar powers onto us. They won’t, but it’s okay, because the distinction between the child and adult worlds has completely broken down in this age of Content. This need for Content that supersedes all other considerations, including the traditional markers of success in our so-called “free” “market.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Everyone did their part for the war effort, including Captain Marvel and his increasingly unwieldy number of sidekicks and spin-offs, collectively known as the “Marvel Family.” But, eventually, the war ended, troops came home, superheroes declined in popularity, and National Publications’ lawsuit against Fawcett (by then entering its tenth year) finally bore fruit. Far as I’m concerned, it was the definition of what we used to call a “frivolous lawsuit”: an industry titan using the courts to squeeze out a smaller competitor out of business. There’s your so-called “Free” “Market” right there. It’s actually a very expensive pay-to-play scam, rigged for the benefit of the rich to the detriment of everybody else. Including – and this is how the whole sorry system works – the slightly less rich. Why do you think two billionaires had to shoot themselves into space? Status Anxiety. All the way down and all the way up.

Owning Superman and Batman proved more lucrative in the long run than owning Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher, so Fawcett settled out of court instead of wasting more money on what looked at that point to be a dying sub-genre anyway. So Captain Marvel and his entire family spent the entire Silver Age of comics in suspended animation, both in his universe and ours…while another small time rival to the now-DC Comics proved the superhero was not quite dead yet.

By 1972, in a move that’s kind of ghoulish the more you think about it, DC Comics entered a licensing agreement with the still-limping-along Faucet to bring the Marvels back into the limelight. Of course, by that point, that other major comic book company had been publishing its own Captain Marvel title for so long he already had his own distaff counterpart, who was well on her way to eclipsing him in popularity. So DC, rather than catch a lawsuit of its own, changed the name of the book to “Shazam!” Which is fine, because that’s the wizard’s name…but still, it would have been funny there, at the end of this movie. when the rest of the family puts their hands on the magic staff and Billy says, “Say my name,” and they all say, “Billy!”…it would have been real funny if that had worked. Just saying.

DC would buy the Marvels outright in 1991, six years after the first Crisis collapsed all of their continuities into a (kind of, sort of but not really) unified whole. The Marvel Family’s never really recovered from that twenty-year-long, legally enforced hiatus, and they’ve been living in the shadow of other more popular superheroes ever since. And by the 21st century they were even living in the shadows of one of their own antagonists.

Elvis liked them. Or, more accurately he liked Billy’s one-time friend, sidekick and future foster brother, Freddie Freeman, once known as Captain Marvel Jr. And that’s apparently why he started wearing all those half-capes. There was a TV series in the 70s, but…it’s a TV series from the 70s. It’s pretty much exactly what you think it is. The 70s Hulk series is better, and more widely available, and the 70s Reb Brown Captain America movies are more funny. One of them’s even got Christopher Lee in it.

Like a lot of other, non-Batman characters, Billy Batson was supposed to get his live-action debut in the late 90s. But that spent the 2000s and 2010s in Development Hell…until the intervention of a People’s Champion. If there’s one thing Dwayne Johnson seems to love, it’s playing characters who turn from heel to face and back again depending on circumstance. So what we have here is a pre-sequel to a Dwayne Johnson movie that will itself be a prequel to this. Which is already getting its own sequel. Everybody got that? Good. And they swear it’s going to be different from The Scorpion King. (Actually I don’t know that for a fact. I don’t know if anyone’s actually had the guts to ask them, “So how’s this different from The Scorpion King?” because if they did they’d probably get banned from every Warner Bros. set.)

Of course, that’s a much harder pitch than the other Captain Marvel movie that released three months before this. All Carol’s movie had to say was, “No, you’re going to need to see this to make sense of Avengers 4.” That turned out to be kind of a lie, but Marvel fans love being lied to. They get lied to all the time and they just lap it up. Little pain piggies, the lot of ’em. DC fans, by contrast, hate being lied to because it’s happened to us so many times before, so Shazam! promised nothing but what it says on the tin. And it delivered…for both better and…I don’t know. Not “worse” for me, but…

And far from the glorified TV episode they released straight to video in 2011 (probably to gauge audience interest for a future live-action Black Adam film) this is a real, honest to the old gods movie. A self-contained superhero origin story with its themes explained in dialogue at several key points and it’s hard on its sleeve. So of course this was both the best reviewed, and lowest grossing, DC movie until Birds of Prey took that crown the next year. Let’s just say we’re real lucky that this was executive produced by The Rock and no movie studio wants to piss him off by saying, “Oh yeah, that multiple movie deal we just made with you? Nah. Sorry, bro. We’re just gonna throw all that away.” Yeah because you know, two or three of those and he might just go crazy and run for president. I mean, look what happened to Arnold. And I mean, hell, he already got a Captain Marvel movie made and that’s pretty much my vote. Shit, boss, that’s gotta be tough enough.

When I say it “promised nothing but what it says on the tin,” I do not mean that pejoratively. Like Carol’s Captain Marvel movie this is so fine of an introduction to Billy and his corner of his universe that I no longer have to waste time explaining him to people. I can just point and go, “Pretty much that,” you know? They don’t get everything, but a lesser Captain Marvel movie would have saved a hell of a lot more for the sequel, let me tell you. I could see how this might have gone in the 90s. And yet here they all are at the end, united. As they should be.

And it’s on point, too, because this is explicitly a “family” film about what “family” means to the isolated, atomized individual – the default subject of American art. It’s about that subject finding mutual acceptance, support and belonging within a family. Or not, in the case of Billy’s antagonist Dr. Sivana. And yes, another bald-headed mad scientist. I know. Blame the Golden Age.

And of course I can’t help but wondering if this Dr. Sivana ever met his universe’s Lex Luthor, and was immediately put off by Lex being such a pretentious asshole, just like everybody else. Lex wanted to be admired, not for his breakthroughs in super science or money or anything like that, but because he knew that “philanthropist” comes from the Greek, meaning, “a lover of humanity.” Sivana doesn’t want to be loved. He doesn’t even want to know what love is. Who cares about that when you’re after power for its own sake? It was denied him at one point in his formative youth, and to deny the second sons of American rich assholes anything is to do them permanent lifelong psychic damage.

in the pantheon of DC universe villains from the I-Can’t-Believe-They’re-Not-Trump Era, I’d put Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana in between Roman Sionis and several steps above Max Lord. But because he disappears for pretty much the entire second act that’s mostly just because he’s played by Mark Strong, the greatest typecast villain of our age. From Kick-Ass to Green Lantern to John Carter (of Mars, damnit!) my man’s been holding it down on the trenches all these years and getting no reward for it. We should be on our tenth Barsoom movie by now, goddammit. He should have been dining out on playing an economic hitman from the stars for these last ten years, but no. Where’s my Synthetic Men of Mars, you cowards…? Oh wait…we’re talking about a Warner Bros. movie this time, so…I don’t know, #ReleasetheAyerCut.

There are some obvious structural problems with this movie… but strangely enough there are no stories of it leaking out of the usual leaky ship that is Warner Bros. About the only thing that distinguishes them from Disney at this point is that Disney tends to keep a tight lid on shit. (Unless it completely blows up in their face, so, you know, you go ScarJo. Get ’em, girl. Critical support for Comrade Romanoff.) It’s the strangest thing- ten years ago, Green Lantern comes out, does “less” money than it “should,” and everybody falls all over themselves to point the finger at the other person. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Martin Campbell since. This comes out “underperforms” (so “only” $360 million) and nobody’s saying nothing. It’s actually kind of creepy.

Turns out a year-long ad campaign was not enough to combat sixty years of relative obscurity. And when audiences searched for comparisons, their brains hit upon a film that’s…superficially the same but not necessarily…better. Those facile comparisons were of course made to Penny Marshall’s Big. Our director probably spent this entire movie’s development hearing such comparisons in board rooms so, of course, put a little piano gag in there. Our director probably spent this entire movie’s development hearing such comparisons in board rooms so, of course, put a little piano gag in there. But Big used its magical realism to justify a workplace comedy and Gen Z doesn’t have any workplaces anymore. Or, from another angle, their workplaces are everywhere. After all, we gotta be always on that grind…even if all the grind will ultimately get us is a life like Dr. Sivana’s.

Big took place at the executive level of a New York City toy company at just the right moment in the late-80s: before the mid-century industrial tycoons all sold out to the Gordon Gekkos of the world. Back then there was a chance, or at least the illusion of a chance, that the mid-century industrial tycoon would bump into some random data clerk and elevate him to a corner office. Those corner office jobs are reserved for the fail sons of the Gordon Gekkos of the world today – the Lex Luthors of the world, as played by Jesse Eisenberg – and everybody knows that. Hell, everybody knew that twenty years ago, when John Glover was playing another Evil Dad to a different universe’s Lex Luthor…and Amy Adams became this weird vampire chick from drinking Kryptonite milkshakes…

So while conservative shitheads might bemoan this rising generation’s wish to be YouTubers, I can only go, “Yeah, sure.” I had that dream too before I knew what it entailed, when I was young and dumb. Like Billy and Freddie here, setting up a YouTube channel, because – after you deal with superhero cliche 002 and 004 – what else is there really to do except become a glorified busker in the streets of Philadelphia? So while some believe the two actors playing Billy clash with each other, I think they actually complement each other very well. Saying things like, “Oh, Asher Angel’s too serious,” really misses the point. Gen Z has had no choice but to get very serious, very quickly, since they’ve spent their entire lives dealing with multiple, overlapping apocalypses that only a handful of people have done anything about. And all their efforts really seem to do is prompt reactions that wind up reinforcing the status quo. We’re already living in a comic book universe, is what I’m saying. Except all we got are supervillains. And of course, every time one of them comes up on CNN I’m like, “Supervillain! Supervillain!” And nobody cares. And most of us have no idea what the hell to do about any of this, except chase clout on the internet. Just like Billy and Freddie, before a super villain shows up to give them something real to with which to deal.

All of which is to say, of course Asher Angel’s Billy is more serious than Zachary Levi’s. Levi’s Billy is, for the first time in his life, exercising some kind of agency. Even if it’s only through his powers of showing off and causing collateral damage (but you know I like that). Asher’s Billy is thirteen years deep into a fruitless quest for his bio parents. And gods only know what kind of Hells he’s seen in the American foster care system.

Now there’s something this film decides to just quietly sidestep because that might be too dark, grim, or gritty. But still, he didn’t get his “lookout for number one” philosophy from the sky, it must have come out of some kind of experience we don’t get to see. Levi’s billy, by finally having the power to live this philosophy out, comes to find that he actually likes helping people. Principally his foster family, but also, through his conflict with Sivana, everyone else. Including everyone the Rock of Eternity touches. Which is everyone in existence, since it is the source of all magic for, and therefore linchpin of, all realities. They even got the crocodile gangsters in there. They didn’t have to do that, but they did and I love it.

But we were talking about the foster care system of the “DCEU” and its differences from our dimension’s foster care system…which you have to be a social worker to even notice. The one social worker I showed this to just to get her opinion was more bemused by the differences than insulted. Because it turns out, if our foster care system actually did let former foster kids become foster parents, and if it ended the plausibly deniable forms of segregation that it still practices to this day then our world actually would become a better place with no superheroes required.

But the same would be true of a lot of things. Including if we, as a culture gave up on the fantasy of biological determinism. The organs you pop out of don’t determine your destiny nearly as much as the socioeconomic position of the person they’re attached to. But that’s too Marxist of a thought for most of my fellow Americans to entertain even if we know it in our bones. Marilyn Batson knew she was in no position to raise a kid, which is why she abandoned Billy in the first place, even if she can only express it in terms of being “real screwed up.” Well we’re all pretty screwed up, Ms. Batson. All the non-magical power that being rich grants you didn’t stop Sivana from obsessing over one moment that he thought defined his life. He drove himself crazy long before demons began to speak in his head. And on the other side of the coin, magic powers are the only thing that stops Billy from obsessing over what he believes to be the singular defining moment of his life. And that is actually powerful in a completely non-magical way. It’s freedom from self-imposed determinism. Finding out that thing you thought determined your life really doesn’t is actually so powerful and freeing that you immediately want to turn around and share it with someone. Just as Billy tries to share it with Sivana here. What good is power if you can’t share it with your family?

And that got a little heavier than I intended there at the end but, like the wizard Shazam, I’m working with what I have here. And what I have here is good, if a bit uneven. Could have used either one more, or one fewer, pass through the editing room. And given the movie studio we’re talking about here, I’m gonna go with one less. And what we have here is the dream of the superhero in the 21st century: That power is not inherently corrupting if you use it to lift up those around you. It just gets harder and harder to take that idea seriously, because we live in a panopticon that would make Foucault shit his pants.

Everybody can name the Seven Deadly Sins these days, if only because of David Fincher’s movie, but you’re gonna be a realS sunday school kiss-ass to name drop the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Even I had to look them up, and they sound like adult film stars’ stage names when you say them out loud. Slightly more popular are the Four Classical Virtues Plato and Aristotle handed down to us: prudence, justicel fortitude and temperance. By which they meant”self-control”…you know…not “not drinking,” even though “temperance” means “not drinking” in my country, cause we had a whole thing about that.

Early Christian moralists combined these virtues with the Three Heavenly virtues Paul calls out in First Corinthians, Chapter 13: faith, hope, and charity. And while medieval artists did occasionally set the sins and virtues against each other, anybody who was putting any actual thought into it did the 10th century equivalent of going, “Yeah, you know life’s…more complicated than all that, I mean…” So you can see why billy’s power set echoes these virtues without actually calling them out.

The Wisdom of Solomon has always been first on the list, I think, because you need it in order to figure out how to use any of the other powers. That’s what “prudence” means, outside the context of the Beatles song that’s probably in your head right now, and if it wasn’t before it certainly is. It’s easy to accept a lot of these powers at face value, as Freddie and Billy do here, but the “stamina” in “Stamina of Atlas” can also be a synonym for “fortitude.” As can the “courage” in “Courage of Achilles.” Self-control and discretion are necessary for any superhero looking to maintain a secret identity, and do they require a greater or lesser degree of strength than catching buses or punches from super villains? The original Greek word the Apostle Paul used for “charity” – “agape” – can also be translated to mean “unconditional love.” And, as we all know, unconditional love is essential for any superhero’s life, in this or any other galaxy, no matter how far, far away they might be. And as for “hope,” “faith” and “justice,” well…there are three other films that allegedly take place in the same universe as this one…Hell, six of them by now, though three of them are basically what we used to call “bottle shows.”

And thanks to the vagaries of Hollywood economics, none of this actually matters, because we’ve got a guaranteed sequel and prequel coming. May all the gods protect them from any further executive fiat. After all, as I keep trying to tell myself until it sinks into my thick skull, never mind yours, we now live in a world where both Captains Marvel have movies to their name, neither of which outright suck, and that’s more than I ever even hoped for…even before I got the Snyder Cut.


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