Boy, I sure am writing a lot about superhero movies aren’t I….
Harley Granville-Barker once succinctly summarized Romeo and Juliet as “a tragedy of youth, as youth sees it.” It’s important to remember that even in its time, Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet was not an original work. It was an adaptation of a poem called The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Iuliet by Arthur Brooke. What’s more, there’s enough evidence to suggest that even Brooke’s version was an adaptation of a story that had been around since at least the Roman Empire. There’s even a similar story in Dante’s Inferno. But Shakespeare’s adaptation changed a key aspect of the play. In previous versions of the story, the “tragedy” of the two lovers was their needless deaths. If they’d only listened to their parents and respected the feud between their houses, they’d still be alive. It was a morality tale, about the dangers of lust and how it played fickle hell on those it afflicted. Shakespeare didn’t see it that way, instead focusing on the triviality of the Capulet and Montague feud, and elevating the longings of his two protagonists to the center stage. By changing the perspective, Shakespeare captured the sympathies of the audience and created one of the greatest love stories ever written. So what does this have to do with a 2019 DC Comics superhero movie?
Shazam is a great movie, easily the best of Warner Brothers’ superhero adaptations. And I think a huge part of that has to do with how the movie portrays its main cast. To paraphrase Granville-Barker, Shazam is a superhero film about youth, as youth sees it. If you’re unfamiliar with the character, Billy Batson is a regular kid who has the ability to say the magic word of Shazam (actually an acronym describing the six heroes and gods from which he draws his power) and transform into an adult-sized superhero who used to go by the name of Captain Marvel. Explaining why Billy can’t be called Captain Marvel anymore, and why his comics have been advertised under the title of Shazam since the 1970s would require a whole separate article but sufficed to say that Marvel Comics absolutely plays a role in the story. Billy Batson debuted as a character in the late 30s and was at one point even more popular than Superman. It’s not hard to see why, what kid wouldn’t want to say a magic word and become a fully-grown superhero with powers and abilities on par with Superman? Oh, and if you’re like Billy Batson, you don’t even have to worry about parents.
It’s worth noting that Billy Batson has always been an orphan, but his parental status has been handled differently throughout the ages. When he first debuted, the issue was never really brought up. Billy had a job as a radio reporter with local radio station WHIZ in his hometown of Fawcett City. In this and a few other ways, Billy was a very self-sufficient character, which could be argued to be par for the course in that era. 1939 was the tail end of the Great Depression in America, and the children who’d grown up during that era had to grow up fast. Lost or otherwise missing parents (especially fathers) were an epidemic and many children had to drop out of school to get jobs in order to support their families. So Billy Batson being a homeless orphan who supported himself with a job might’ve been a bit fantastical but it was also just this side of believable. Over the years, Billy’s status has been addressed more directly. Billy’s position as a member of a foster family was introduced into his background in 2011 by Geoff Johns when DC Comics performed on its company wide reboots. Incidentally, Johns is an executive producer on Shazam as well as all of the DCEU films.
Family plays a big part in the 2019 adaptation of Shazam. The main thematic through line of the story is about Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) coming to accept his new group home as the family he has always run away from. Billy continuously pushes his new family away while desperately trying to track down his birth mother. This character arc forms the backbone of Shazam, all the stuff with super-heroics and magic words just feeds into it. And it works so well because Shazam is told from the perspective of Billy, from the perspective of a disaffected 14 year old. Writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke deserve a ton of credit for making Billy and his foster siblings feel like real teenagers and children. When Billy first gains the ability to become a superhero, he and his adopted brother Freddy don’t immediately use his powers for good. Instead, they make YouTube videos, pull pranks and straight up rob ATMs because they’re a pair of teenagers and of course that’s what they’d probably do. The writing is obviously helped a great deal by the actors reading the lines. Angel, and costars Zachery Levi (who plays the Billy’s superhero alter ego) and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy do an exceptional job with their material.
But petty teenage shenanigans aren’t the only way this movie sells the teenage perspective. Shazam is dark in a way that very few superhero movies are willing to be, and not in a juvenile or “edgy” way. There’s an authentic lived-in cynicism to the proceedings. The inner-city Philadelphia setting is appropriate, as is the villain’s motivation of proving that “moral purity,” doesn’t exist in our modern world. Again, this makes sense. Being a teenager can absolutely suck. You’re old enough to think for yourself but your’re constrained by societal rules (and rulers) that are far older than you and seemingly arbitrary. Shazam is far from the first piece of art to sympathize with this point of view, it was more or less the basis for the entirely grunge musical genre back in the 90s. But Shazam is the first movie in a long time to balance the grim realities of being a teenager with the exuberance of living as a teenager. Sony’s animated Into the Spider’verse did something similar in 2018 (and frequent readers will remember I loved Spider’verse) but that movie more focused on realizing your potential, Shazam is more about living in the moment.
Verisimilitude is a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s a big ole multi-syllabic word that means “having the appearance of being true or real.” In other words, something that is verisimilitudinous isn’t real, but it looks like it could be. In many ways, when people talk about an otherwise far-fetched movie or story being “realistic,” what they mean is that the narrative has verisimilitude. Often times, especially in genre fare like Shazam, this means taking cheap short cuts like using deliberately muddy (read: boring) color palettes, throwing in a few saucy lines of dialogue or exaggerating the violence. Zack Synder’s Batman Versus Superman is a great example of just how badly this can end up. It’s not only a drab and lifeless movie, the plot and characters are written with such a heavy hand as to be almost laughable. The movie’s race to have a “realistic” outlook on superheroes cripples its own narrative, and its far from the only one. I could probably rattle off the names of a dozen movies, games, TV shows or comic books that have tried to create an air of realism by focusing on these “grimdark” trappings. (Sidebar: I could and probably will write an entire article about the grimdark aesthetic and how it can be used properly but that’s another matter.)
Shazam provides a road map for this kind of “gritty” adaptation and I think the secret lies in perspective. Any world, setting or plot development can be “dark” if its framed properly. You don’t have to live in the universe of Warhammer 40K, or Game of Thrones to feel hopeless or overwhelmed. If a narrative can put you into the head space of the characters, then the emotions it seeks to inspire are magnified tenfold. The darkest moment in Shazam has nothing to do with superpowers or its sinister demonic antagonists. Instead, it’s a very real moment of utterly fatalistic truth, that I won’t spoil for you here. Sufficed to say, I think the emotions of that scene, match the The Snap at the end of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. But that moment only works because the movie has spent nearly two hours getting us to empathize with the worldview of our main character. What’s more, that fatalism, that moment of revelation isn’t the point. It’s followed up by a climax that is both viscerally and thematically cathartic on a level I haven’t seen in a superhero movie since the first Avengers.
Shazam isn’t alone in this of course. I’ve been itching to write something like this for what feels like months. I could talk about how science fiction writer Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s work in the Warhammer 40K universe is so meaningful because of how he uses perspective to make us empathize with monsters. Or I could talk about how the writers of The Venture Brothers have used verisimilitude (in the form of political intrigue and complex plot turns) to strengthen the parody that’s at the heart of the show. But there was something about Shazam. It shook something loose in my brain and, as is readily apparent, caused the words to spill out. It’s a lively, heartfelt and often times funny movie that isn’t afraid to be serious in ways that its contemporaries aren’t. This hasn’t exactly been a review, but I’d highly recommend going to see it if you haven’t already. Hence, I tried not to spoil anything major in this piece. It’s no Shakespeare, but much like The Bard, it made me believe in the story I was being told.