So, since doing movie reviews – at least for big-budget Hollywood genre films – is a thing that I do here, I thought it would behoove me to go see Shazam!. Went on Thursday to an 8:00 show even though I have the flu because I’m a professional, damnit!
I’m a blogger!
I was excited to see this movie, even though most of DC’s recent movies have been less than stellar. I have always liked the DC character the movie was based on, and I really wanted DC to have another good, solid movie I could enjoy.
As far as being a good movie goes, I think DC knocked it out of the park. It’s got a solid structure, relatable characters, some good genuine moments of heartfelt warmth, a sense of fun that DC desperately needed, and is a good entry into their overall Canon. That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie – there are definitely some minor pacing problems in the second act which focuses a bit too much on the powers and not enough on the characters, the villain is underdeveloped, and at a few places the movies lower budget shows through with some janky CGI that would have looked fine in a CW show but fell flat on the big screen. Overall, this is a movie that I think most people will enjoy.
And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that important qualifier of ‘most’ people.
I, personally, cannot do a real review of Shazam. One particular part of the movie struck me so hard, and on such a deep and profound level, that it’s completely overridden my ability to judge this movie on any kind of objective or even artistic merit. This one particular part of the movie is just so overpowering that it overrides my ability to be analytical. It turned me into a five-year-old trying to grapple with issues that were too big for me to understand because that’s how old I was when I first had to grapple with these issues. I pride myself on my ability to sit through any movie. I sat through all of Green Lantern. I sat through all of Daredevil. I sat through all of Catwoman. I sat through Prometheus. I have never in my life walked out of a movie.
But I have never, ever, been so tempted to walk out of a movie as I was with Shazam.
Unfortunately, I can’t get into why without spoiling huge parts of this movie. I also say that I wanted to walk out for deeply personal reasons that I don’t think will bother 99% of viewers. You can probably see this movie and by the end of it be wondering what the hell my issue was. I am encouraging you to watch this movie before coming back and finding out what my problem with the movie was because it’s a good movie I think you’ll enjoy. I think most people will enjoy it.
That being said this movie devastated me in ways that no other movie ever has, or likely ever will again because I cannot imagine another movie that will hit me on such a deeply personal level in service of trying to find a ‘warm and fuzzy’ moment in the most mean spirited way imaginable.
Spoiler warning in effect from here on out.
Seriously, I’m about to give away a massive, massive reveal. This is going to give away probably the biggest character moment in the entire film, and if you do not want that to happen, you should stop reading here.
So, the movie has done what the comic books did and retooled Billy Batson’s origin story to make him an orphan that grew up in the foster system. That was a good call. The character of Captain Marvel in DC comics – I’m going to call him Shazam going forward just because it’s how DC seems to have decided to resolve the naming issue – has always been about his large adopted superheroic family, so making him actually have an adopted family makes sense, both narratively and thematically. It’s a good call that makes sense for the character.
In this version, Billy was lost at a carnival, separated from his mother after she had won him a compass. Billy in the present is still trying to locate his missing mother, frequently running out on foster families in part of an ongoing quest to find out what happened to her. The first thing we see him do is track down someone he truly believes is his mother…only to find out it absolutely is not. It actually was really engaging for me because, well…I’m a child of adoption myself. I’ve spent the past few years intermittently trying to locate my birth parents, thus far to no effect. It was nice to see a superhero who struggles with some of the same questions I did and still do to this day.
I want to to be clear here – I’m absolutely invested in the character from that scene alone. Seeing Billy go to find his birth mother and the devastation when it, once again, is not, is something that resonates with me on such a fundamental level that I am absolutely rooting for this kid even though he’s kind of a dick.
There’s also a supervillain with a messed up family of his own because this movie is really doubling down on the family dynamic angle. That’s fine. Billy is slowly learning to like or at least care about his new foster family, and that’s great. I’m all geared up for Billy to learn a valuable lesson that family is a choice, not a matter of blood, and I am so there for that because it’s something I truly, honestly believe.
Again, Spoiler Incoming! Last Call!
Then, right before the big superhero brawl that these movies must end on by law, Billy’s new foster siblings reveal that they were able to track down his birth mother. She’s alive. Two subway stops away. Billy runs to go meet her, which leaves his foster family exposed for the villain to capture them to stage the act three battle. At this point, I am kind of drumming my fingers on the seat, waiting for them to get on with the movie. You know what happens here, of course. It ends up being another false lead, and Billy has to come to terms with the loss of birth family one last time just as he realizes he has all the family he needs with his foster family.
At least, that’s what would have happened in a better movie. A movie that had some compassion for what people like Billy – like me – struggle with.
Shazam is not that movie.
Instead, it turns out…that is, in fact, Billy’s mother. He finds his mother, his real, honest to God birth mother. He is going to get what so few kids of adoption ever get – an answer to why they were adopted. The question that most of us spend much of our childhood grappling with is going to get answered for the protagonist of the movie. And the reason he was abandoned as a child was…
…he was a huge inconvenience for his birth mother. She saw him waiting for her, looking for her, sitting on the hood of a police car as they tried to find her…and realized that she’d be better off without him, and he would be better off without her.
That’s right. Shazam posits that if you are adopted, there’s a chance it’s because your birth parents didn’t want you enough. That you were a pain in the ass. The worst nightmare of anyone who was adopted made manifest in the middle of this overall family-friendly movie, a complete and utter knife in the gut to anyone who has struggled with those doubts and fears. It was enraging. I saw one of my greatest fears, one of the nightmares that has kept me awake at night, play out in a movie – and then was expected to whiplash right back to superhero punchy action.
And it wasn’t even needed.
Billy didn’t need to find his birth mother. I explained exactly how it could have played out a few paragraphs ago. We didn’t need Billy to be utterly rejected by his birth mother to come to love his foster family. It actually would have been better, and truer to what being a child of adoption is actually like, to have Billy miss out on meeting his mother one more time and come to the realization that family is so much more than blood without her rejecting him on the doorstep of a crappy apartment.
I hope you can enjoy this movie. I really do think it’s a good movie that deserves the praise it’s getting, and if it gets a sequel – now that the franchise is past this awful, awful twist – I’ll definitely be going to see it. Hell, I’m probably going to make a point to go and see it again in theaters, now that I’m past the initial shock of that moment. I’ll just probably step out of the theater when that scene is coming. The overall message of the importance of the adopted family is good, the characters are engaging, the action is solid…I think I could really like this movie. Hell, it might even be a testament to the quality of this film that it managed to stab me in the gut so hard with that moment.
But we didn’t need to see that. We didn’t need to watch Billy’s heartbroken in that way, and we didn’t need the movie to say to adopted kids “Hey, you know what? It’s possible your mom didn’t love you enough. Let’s go watch some people punch each other now.”
I like to have a witty outro here. I don’t have it this week. I blame the flu. Don’t forget to get your free book while you’re here! Especially if you’re sick. It’s a nice way to spend some of that time sick.