Before comic-book culture was a religion, it was a pleasure, often a forbidden one. Kids used to have to hide their comic-book collections from their parents. Loving comics and their artistry was an act of rebellion.
Today it’s a kind of tyranny. When we were kids, these stories told in words and pictures may have helped us feel more empowered in the face of bullies; now they’re used to bully others. Don’t ever dare suggest that comic books are supposed to be fun. You must treat comics and their resident superheroes with utmost seriousness, and you must also have the proper enthusiasm for the multimillion-dollar film products they spawn. Critics who disliked Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight got death and rape threats. (I know, because I was one of them.) On Twitter, trolling is a way of life for lowlifes who perceive that their devotion to the Avengers, or any other superhero franchise, is being undermined in any way. Comic-book culture today is so constrained by rules and expectations that it’s the opposite of cool. It’s square.
But what if someone made a superhero movie that was breezy and fun, free of dourness and portent? What if the jokes in this movie were loopy and loose, as if the people who’d made it felt they had nothing to lose, as opposed to conforming to rigid fan-base expectations? And what if the main character was just a goofball and not a specially molded receptacle ready to hold all our dreams, fears and insecurities? Shazam!—directed by David F. Sandberg and starring Zachary Levi as a 14-year-old kid in a grown man’s superpower-enhanced body—is a model for a new kind of superhero movie, one that demands neither genuflection nor forced grinning at 1,001 little cultish inside jokes. Shazam! just breathes, and it’s bliss.
It’s time we started thinking about superhero movies like the grownups we are. That may mean returning them to the realm of kids, or at least restoring some air and lightness to them—which is what Shazam! does. Its hero is runaway foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a bright, unruly teenager who’s always trying to outwit the cops, not to mention child protective services. Billy doesn’t mean any harm—he’s only looking for his real mom—but the law catches up with him, and he lands in a foster home with a bunch of other kids who, like him, aren’t quite sure where they belong in the world. He makes friends, at first reluctantly, with one of his new housemates, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). Freddy needs a brace in order to walk, though before long the brace becomes invisible and the -person—smart, fast-talking, awkwardly -charming—is all you see.
The amiable gimmick of Shazam! is that Billy, after almost accidentally passing a test of his spiritual worthiness, is granted the power to become Shazam, a full-grown hero with a bodaciously muscular chest and numerous superpowers that include flying, electricity manipulation and resistance to bullets. Shazam, as played by Levi, is an adolescent catapulted into the world of adulthood à la Tom Hanks in Big.
Billy is psyched to find himself in the body of a grownup, with all the privilege that confers: he strides into a convenience store, puffs out his already considerably puffy chest and informs the clerk, “I’d like to purchase some of your finest beer, please.” But Billy can’t be Shazam all the time, and when he’s not, he has to follow all the rules of being a teenager, still powerless in the real world. And because he doesn’t yet know how formidable his powers are, he risks being vanquished by the movie’s main villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (the preternaturally elegant Mark Strong), who has harnessed the power of the Seven Deadly Sins and is about to unleash it on the universe.
Shazam! is a product of Warner Bros.’ DC Universe, but it’s a pop confection, markedly distinct from the self-conscious doominess of so many movies adapted from comic books. Which brings us to a question: there’s room for plenty of filmmaking styles in the comic-book adaptation firmament. Why, then, do we get so many in the same mold? Marvel’s typically somber, ultra-respectful approach—leavened by the occasional overscripted sardonic quip from Iron Man or an irreverent blurt from Rocket-Raccoon—has proved to bring in the big bucks, which means it’s unlikely to change. In a few weeks Marvel fans will once again flock to the cathedral for Avengers: Endgame, the capper to the two-part story that began, more or less, with last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. In Infinity War, a good half of Marvel’s most beloved superheroes crumbled to dust. You can bet that in Endgame, most or all will permanently come back, although one or two will probably be sacrificed forever.
Marvel’s universe isn’t that different from Shakespeare’s: you know someone has to kick the bucket; for fans, watching the how and why unfold is part of the cathartic pleasure. Yet the epic battles in these films have reached a generic level of largesse; filmmakers aren’t sure how to make them innovative or particularly interesting, so they just keep making them bigger. Why does every beat have to be so momentous? When everything’s a climax, there’s nothing to climb toward.
Once in a while, a superhero movie breaks the pattern: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, for example, lives nobly on an island of its own. Ditto for this past year’s Aquaman, directed by James Wan and starring Jason Momoa, a vision of underwater pulp extravagance. And the Ant-Man pictures, featuring Paul Rudd, are terrifically goofy and all the more appealing for it.
But those films are exceptions. The stakes for comic-book movies are so high these days that any sort of radical experimentation is risky. The Black Panther comics, for example, are deeply meaningful for young people of color who grew up with them—-luckily, Coogler’s film lived up to fans’ expectations, though he also succeeded in making a movie that even comic-book outsiders could enjoy. Comic-book fans started speculating about Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel—the first two movies to feature women as -superheroes—months, even years, before they were released. Internet trolls, unhappy about the idea of too many feisty wimminfolk infiltrating the comic-book man cave, or something, entered the fray as well. Normal, sane people couldn’t help feeling protective of those films in -advance—to the point that when they landed, it was hard to talk about whether or not they worked as movies. Instead, we had to keep asking, What do they do for women?—a question that limits how we think about both movies and women.
Superhero pictures are now required to be therapy sessions in the form of a movie ticket. Voice a criticism of either Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel and you’re likely to be shouted down with a chorus of “But look at all the little girls in their superhero outfits!” As if the greatest measure of a movie’s worth were its ability to get a kid into a costume. Kids can and should enjoy these movies. But maybe their value is greater to adults than it is to children.
Which brings us back to Billy and Freddy, using Billy’s newfound superpowers—to buy beer. Shazam isn’t much of a role model. He’s actually kind of a jerk. He lets Freddy down at a crucial moment, leaving him exposed to a duo of school bullies. Then he shows off by saving a bus full of people dangling from a bridge—though it wouldn’t be dangling at all if not for him.
Sandberg (director of the horror pictures Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) and Levi (perhaps best known from TV’s Chuck, though he also played Fandral in two of the Thor movies) treat Billy’s insecurities and foibles—whether he’s in his teenage body or the grownup one—as passing anxieties, not major, life–defining stumbling blocks. Levi’s Shazam is the perfect amalgam of muscle-bound bravado and youthful -hubris—but both are tempered by the fact that Billy, deep down, is just a really good kid. In its fantasy sequences, Shazam! has the vibe of an Indiana Jones adventure—there’s a ramshackle inventiveness to it. And you can come into it cold, having no idea who Shazam is. (He was created in 1939 as Captain Marvel, originally appearing in comics published by Fawcett and later licensed to DC.)
But best of all, Shazam! feels young, a world apart from that stone-cold cosmos in which self-serious villains descend upon humanity with their dumb jeweled gloves. The dialogue even includes some slangy swear words, suitable for shocking uptight parents. Shazam! is modern and yet somehow lived-in, like a pair of well-worn sneakers. It speaks of a time when you had to hide comic books under your bed. And your dad wasn’t wearing a Batman T-shirt.