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‘Shazam!’ and the Long-Gone Innocence of Superhero Movies

Plus some other random thoughts about the new DC blockbuster

In my house growing up, there were many things about pop culture that my dad and I disagreed about. (For instance, he preferred Star Wars, while I loved The Empire Strikes Back.) But one of our biggest debates was over which superhero movie was better: 1978’s Superman or 1989’s Batman. My dad liked Superman, and I did too, but when he took me to see the Tim Burton movie, that was it for me. I dug Batman’s edgier, grittier tone — I felt a greater kinship to this vision of a comic-book character. Superman seemed squeaky-clean and lame by comparison. My dad, I suspect, was always a little disappointed that I felt that way. “Superman’s just a really good guy,” I could imagine him saying. “That Batman movie is too weird and dark.”

In the 30 years since Batman hit theaters, more people — especially those in charge of studios — have come to agree with my assessment. Superhero movies are far more ubiquitous now than they were in 1989, and the great majority of them go the dark, edgy route. Even though Marvel has, mostly, injected more fun into the mix, even their films seek to be hip and cool.

It’s a weird irony that, for so long, comic books and comic-book fans were perceived to be nerds, losers and outcasts. They were the furthest thing from cool imaginable. But this century, superhero movies have climbed to the top of the cultural heap. Stereotype these fans as being basement-dwelling virgins all you want, but nothing is as big in the world as Batman and Superman and the Avengers. The nerds now rule.

What’s fascinating about Shazam! is that it creates an alternate reality in which none of that is true. Where most superhero films are high-octane and edgy — even when they’re more playful, like Aquaman, they wink at the audience to indicate that they know they’re being goofy — Shazam! is sweet and sincere and dorky. It wants to recapture the earnest innocence that we all once had about comic books and comic-book movies. The problem with the film is that, try as it might, it doesn’t exist in the past, or in an alternate reality. It exists in 2019, and that fact undercuts much of what it’s trying to do.

Based on the comic, which originated in 1939, Shazam! tells the story of Billy (Asher Angel), a plucky orphan who encounters a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who imbues him with special powers. The way Billy can activate them is by yelling “Shazam!” — suddenly, he becomes a muscular, handsome adult (Zachary Levi) who can fly and do other cool things. For most boys — especially plucky orphans — this is a dream come true. Tom Hanks only got to be big in Big — Billy gets to be an adult and shoot lightning from his hands.

Shazam! has a blast imagining how a young person would react to becoming a superhero. We’ve seen this trope before in movies like Green Lantern and some of the Spider-Man films — this wish fulfillment of proving to the world that we’re unique and extraordinary. That’s certainly part of the appeal for Billy, who’s basically a good kid but could use the self-esteem boost. Getting incredible powers helps make up for being picked on at school. After all, who cares about bullies when you can turn into Zachary Levi and be literally bulletproof?

It’s hard not to see Billy’s morphing into Shazam as a metaphor for superhero movies’ ascension. What was once supposedly only for geeks — that was never true, by the way — has now been embraced by mainstream culture. But unlike so many comic-book films, which have a bit of swagger to them, Shazam! still remembers what it meant to be that awkward kid trying to figure out the world and wishing to be mightier than you were. And happily, Billy doesn’t become a monster when he’s gifted with these powers. The worst thing he does is use his newfound adulthood to sneak a peak in a strip club. But even that’s played for wholesome laughs. Shazam! isn’t nearly as lovingly corny as the original Superman, but it’s got some of the same unassuming, gee-whiz spirit.

Many reviewers have picked up on that fact, all of them using the same compliment to praise Shazam! — one that you rarely hear about comic-book movies. They say that it’s “fun.” I think there’s a reason why a lot of superhero movies aren’t “fun”: My guess is it’s because there has remained an insecurity on the filmmakers’ part about wanting these characters to seem cool. “Cool” and “fun” sit diametrically opposed to one another. Cool is tough, edgy, sophisticated, guarded. Fun is wholesome, cheerful, innocent, open. Fun is unafraid what others think of it. Cool is more of an adolescent pose — one that a lot of us never grow out of completely. We remember being that insecure kid and spend the rest of our lives trying to escape it, especially at the movie theater.

No wonder superhero films seem stuck in that angsty teenage mindset. My dad liked Superman because the Man of Steel was noble. I liked Batman because the Dark Knight was brooding, mysterious — in other words, the ideal guises for a young guy who wasn’t totally comfortable with puberty and girls and bullies and growing up. I didn’t want something “fun” — I wanted Batman. Apparently, lots of other moviegoers did, too: When Bryan Singer tried to recreate the wholesome spirit of the Christopher Reeve movies with Superman Returns, it got mocked for being old-fashioned. In the most recent iteration, Man of Steel, Supes came bearing a lot of demons. They made sure he wasn’t fun anymore.

Shazam!’s old-fashioned, unashamed nerdy innocence is its best quality, but as much as it tries to be fun, the film fights a losing battle with the realities of modern blockbuster culture. One of the things that made a Superman (or even a Batman) novel is that there weren’t a dozen superhero movies every year. Tellingly, Shazam! is set in a universe where the characters are aware of other DC heroes like Aquaman and Superman — not as people in comic books but actual individuals who live on Earth. Kinda like the Deadpool films, Shazam! works the wisecracking, what-me-worry? side of the street, trying hard to make us forget that it’s really just a small cog in a much larger corporate franchise entity. In addition, the movie eventually gets shoehorned into a pretty typical superhero adventure where Billy has to face off with an all-powerful evil villain (Mark Strong), leading to a completely standard epic finale. As fun as Shazam! can be, it’s still ruled by comic-book conventions, which insist that the movie be big and overblown in predictable ways. Innocence is fine, but Warner Bros. still wants to put asses in seats.

Cool is about trying to adopt a posture that shows the world you don’t care. (This is why people always say that the truly coolest people are the ones who don’t try to be cool. Thanks, Mom.) It’s a mindset that shackles a lot of young men, and it’s an internal conflict that informs and hampers Shazam! In the movie, Billy wants to just be the mighty Shazam, but he discovers that he’s better off honoring what makes him special. Ironically, Shazam! has the opposite problem: It longs to be more fun and innocent than your typical superhero movie, but it ultimately succumbs to the pressures of fitting in.

Here are three other takeaways from Shazam!

#1. Can we talk about the death threat I got for writing a mixed review of Shazam!?

I tend not to get too many angry responses to negative reviews I write. There are a couple reasons for this. One is that even my really scathing reviews are relatively civil. Another is that I’m not a woman. While male critics will get their share of pushback online, it’s nothing compare to what my female colleagues have to endure — especially when it comes to reviewing superhero movies. I won’t link to any of it here — why give the trolls the satisfaction? — but I know female critics who receive reams of sexist and/or threatening responses from pissed-off male comic-book fans. (A colleague mentioned that, four months after Aquaman’s release, her friend is still getting death threats for writing a mixed review of that movie.)

So it was with a mixture of disappointment and bitter amusement that I woke up on Sunday, March 24th, the morning after my Shazam! review went live, to see this series of tweets:

For those who don’t pay attention to the minutiae of Film Twitter, “RT” is Rotten Tomatoes. Basically, this very sane person was mad that my negative review was included on Shazam!’s Rotten Tomatoes page, thereby driving down its fresh score. (Fear not, fans of Shazam!: It’s currently sitting at a healthy 91 percent fresh.)

I didn’t think much of this death threat: I reported it to Twitter, as did a few colleagues, and went about my day. The person’s account is currently suspended. But then I started getting a few random death threats on my Instagram account:

Needless to say, it was a delightful weekend.

The reason I can be pretty cavalier about the whole thing is that I know there’s no real chance that these people will kill me. Also, I know I’m in a fortunate position: As a man, I’m not under the kind of scrutiny that my female colleagues are. What they have to deal with on a regular basis is unconscionable.

It’s funny: When you give a movie a bad review, its online defenders will argue that you should just have fun with the film. “After all,” they’ll say, “it’s only a movie.” Yeah, yeah, it’s only a movie — until the death threats start flying.

#2. Here’s a brief history of the other Shazam.

In the buildup to Shazam!’s release, you’ve probably seen a variation on this joke online about a billion times:

Yes, there is also a music app called Shazam. I use it on my phone a decent amount, and I’ve never stopped being amazed by it. So I decided to dig a little bit into the company’s history.

First of all, why did they decide on that name? In 2013, Shazam cofounder Chris Barton explained, “Shazam is actually in the dictionary. The word is an exclamation, and it means ‘When you’re conjuring magical things.’ … We really thought that was a great word for something where you kind of magically identified music.” In truth, the word entered the lexicon because of the superhero. The name is actually an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury — the six mighty figures that help give Billy his powers. (And so we don’t get sidetracked into comic-book lore, yes, Shazam used to be called Captain Marvel, which is its own complicated thing.)

Before Shazam launched in 2002, it took years for the founders to crack their idea. Medium’s The Startup has a long excerpt from Danielle Newnham’s Mad Men of Mobile, in which Philip Inghelbrecht, Avery Wang, Chris Barton and Dhiraj Mukherjee discuss Shazam’s early days. It’s a great read that feels like a far-less-evil origin story than that of Facebook or Apple, and I really enjoyed hearing how they worked out the flaws in the technology, which involved enduring plenty of false starts. Below, Wang describes one of the breakthrough moments of figuring out the algorithm:

“I reasoned that in order to have reproducible descriptions of audio features, there needed to be reproducible locations in the audio files called landmarks. An example of landmarks is energy peaks in the audio. Around each landmark there must then be a description of the local signal, which I called fingerprints. With [Stanford professor] Julius [Smith]’s help, I focused my efforts on different formulations of landmarks, as well as fingerprints. On both fronts, we had various ideas and limited success  —  until, one day, I was plotting the time scatter plot of matching fingerprints. It was a straight diagonal line of data points in the plot. When I saw it, I knew we had a powerful statistical indicator of a match and that the algorithm could be made to be very fast. What I saw on the graph immediately suggested that the problem was solvable!”

I am not going to pretend I understand more than half of what Wang is talking about, but that’s part of the fun. It took someone as smart as these guys to make an idiot-proof app that tells me that the song I’m listening to on the radio is “Playful 4 Life” by Tiny Lion featuring Wiz Khalifa. Thanks, smart people.

#3. Is Shazam! too scary for kids?

I don’t have children, which is nice in lots of ways. But one of the things that’s most difficult about not being a parent (while being a film critic) is to answer this question from my friends: “Is [name of new movie] too scary for my kid?”

Few questions I get on a regular basis scare me more than this one. I never know what to say. For one thing, I was kind of a freaked-out kid, so I can’t really gauge things on how I reacted to movies as a boy. (The fact that I started out my career reviewing horror movies never ceases to amuse me. Apparently, I was making up for all the years that I avoided them like the plague.) Also, hey, I don’t know your kid. It’s damn hard to put yourself in the position of a child you rarely see and then guess his or her reaction to potentially scary stuff. Plus, I don’t want to leave my friend with a traumatized child if I guess wrong.

I bring this up because Shazam! is geared toward younger viewers in a way that other superhero movies aren’t as much. And yet, there’s some pretty scary stuff in the film — scarier, I thought, than what that age group might expect. And I’m not alone in feeling this way:

This brings up the eternal question of how we get exposed to stuff in movies or on television shows that turns out to be more intense than we can deal with at that age.  On the whole, I tend not to think that these instances are that permanently scarring. If anything, it becomes a story we recall fondly when we’re older: “Remember when we watched that horror movie and had the bejeesus scared out of us?” It’s a pop-culture rite of passage.

That said, I do think parents ought to be careful with Shazam! The bad guy’s ghoul henchmen are freaky, and there’s a death scene that, although it happens off-screen, is still pretty intense. But I don’t know for sure how kids will handle it because, again, every kid is different. I don’t like the idea of shielding young people from things — I don’t want to automatically assume they’re too fragile. On the other hand, though, I don’t want to pay your kids’ therapy bills because Uncle Tim said it was a-okay to take Lil’ Tommy to the new Pet Sematary, either.