As you’re likely aware, one of the most revolutionary, mechanically interesting, and just darn great superhero movies was released to cinemas this Easter. I am, of course, talking about DC’s Shazam!
Okay, okay, I know critics are raving about Avengers: Endgame– and I’m not denying its acclaim. The fact of the matter is, I cried more during Shazam! than I did during Endgame. I’m not entirely certain as to why myself. After all, Endgame is an elaborate tapestry of an epic, and Shazam! is about a child who changes into a super-powered adult when he yells a silly word. Or, sorry, the name of the last wizard of the high wizard council. Yeah, it gets weird.
That’s the thing, though – comic books are weird. There’s the Pet-vengers, staring frog Thor, AKA Throg. There’s the time batman wore zebra-print suits for a week. And who could forget the time Daredevil faked a twin brother, just to kill this creation off? Awesome, butt-kicking heroes with witty one-liners are all well and good, but a lot of superhero movies lack the self-awareness of just how damn weird their plotlines are. It’s dressed in lowkey lighting, dramatic and ominous background music, and a gritty antiheroic lead who only speaks in a tone so gravely you’d think he was a middle-class driveway.
The fact of the matter is, I cried more during Shazam! than I did during Endgame
Shazam! starts with a small child getting transported to the last of the council of wizards. There’s no caveats, the audience is just expected to roll with it. And they do. Of course they do because superheros are inherently silly. It’s one of my favourite genres, don’t get me wrong, and a great setting for discussion of morality issues, but the fantasticality of the superhero story comes hang in hand with campness and ridiculousness. The only time the dreadnought of the MCU has ever touched on these themes is with the widely revered masterpiece, Thor: Ragnarok
As well as embracing the silly-ness of its origin genre, Shazam! keeps the focus on one of the most important and prevalent themes of superhero narratives: the family. A foster-kid protagonist who (Spoilers!) ends up realising the importance and significance of his foster family over his biological mother, who is revealed to have abandoned him. Reinforcing the message that it is his family that both literally and metaphorically gives our protagonist power, whether or not they are biological.
Shazam! keeps the focus on one of the most important and prevalent themes of superhero narratives: the family
Shazam! may certainly be comfortably slotted into several genres; the superhero, the comedy, the Christmas movie (Oh yeah, it’s set at Christmas) – anything feel-good and family friendly. Interestingly enough, the film’s director, David Sandberg, is a horror veteran. Whilst I was unaware of any overt horror techniques in Shazam!, thinking about it did prompt the realisation that directing a ‘good’ horror movie is essentially a masterclass in how to create narrative tension. Whilst Shazam! certainly felt narratively disjointed in parts, any suspense in the film is handled wonderfully, allowing for a more immersive narrative. And there are certainly parts which are brutal – I’m taking about the time a guy’s head gets eaten, of course.
The other interesting thing about this movie is the owners of the intellectual property (IP). Whilst, as previously discussed, Marvel gives us quippy and comic heroes, they don’t lean into the silliness as much as Shazam! wonderfully does. Moreover, DC, the owners of Shazam!, are known for their ‘gritty’ takes on superheroes. They even tried to make superman an anti-hero, remember that? And yet, after years of dark, serious, heroes dealing with dark, serious, problems, we now have Zachary Levi in a skin-tight red suit with the mind of a thirteen year old, who loves his foster family very, very much. I, for one, am thankful. Narrative fiction, for some reason, seems to be obsessed with the idea that silliness automatically makes for bad art. I’ve never understood it myself. So, in a world of antiheroes, it’s nice to see earnest enthusiasm, and a little immaturity. Isn’t the fantastic what heroes are all about?