One key component to enjoying any fictional work is in the audience’s ability to put away their doubt and invest in the story being presented to them, or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge so famously put it: willing suspension of disbelief. Regardless of how well-crafted or skillful a fictional work is, the quality will be completely lost if the audience doesn’t wish to ignore what they know about the bounds between reality and fantasy and allow themselves to enjoy the work. However, often lost in this concept is the responsibility of the creator of the work to give the audience a reason to invest as well as a method by which to easily put aside their doubt. In this sense it could be argued that a failed work, despite it being well-crafted, could be blamed on both the audience for not fulfilling their role in accepting the work by its own rules, as well as the creator for not offering enough incentive for the audience to accept those rules.
This requirement is especially true in the case of superhero films as not only do they demand the same suspension of disbelief as any other fictional work, but even entering the work itself is contingent on accepting the premise of superheroes. For some, this point alone is enough to hold them out, as I witnessed earlier this week when several of my acquaintances complained that every superhero movie is dumb based more or less solely on their existence as superhero movies. (Yet those same people also expressed great excitement for the last season of Game of Thrones.) However, once one has demonstrated this basic willingness, it now depends on the individual film to offer a great enough incentive for that audience member to accept the particularities of that film. For Shazam! I am personally willing to shoulder some of the blame in not suspending my disbelief enough, but I’d also contend that the filmmakers did very little to consistently offer a world that allowed my disbelief to be suspended. To put it simply: I didn’t buy Shazam! because the film failed to sell itself.
Whereas some in the audience may find the opening sequence of Shazam! as a satisfyingly simple origin, laying out its rules, setting, and a few of its themes, others (such as myself) will view it as an incredibly obvious set-up, predictable from the very first second, with little payoff, establishing an idea that only proves more inconsistent as the film continues. This disconnection then carries on through the entire first act where we meet Billy Batson, a teenage orphan whose facial expressions look like a 50-50 blend of Maisie Williams and Spider-Man-era Tobey Maguire, whom we are told is an outstanding detective in searching for his birth mother, yet apparently isn’t so good that he can’t simply find the address he wants online, instead opting for another obvious set-up on the local police. (I hate to say this but really, if Billy were a black kid pranking Philly PD, the scene would’ve played out much, much differently.) Billy’s history of ditching foster homes is quickly established before he’s then pushed off onto a new one where a good-natured couple rattles off lines that feels either like a practiced bit for their new kids or poorly delivered banter. Nonetheless, the couple is very sweet and offers a rare positive example of foster care continued when Billy arrives at their home and we are introduced to his new family of quirky but loveable one-note characters. Of course Billy rejects these people. To paraphrase another film which supposedly takes place in the same universe: He’s the protagonist, it’s what they do. This background plays out in the most obvious way until, finally, the superhero part of this superhero film begins, bringing with it both the best and the worst Shazam! has to offer:
Billy Batson is a jerk.
If you know even the most basic information on Shazam! you know that the Shazam powers are supposedly given to the purest, most worthy champion in the world. And this person is apparently Billy Batson. Yet from everything we’ve seen up to this point, Billy isn’t even the most worthy person in his own foster home as at least three of the eight people he now lives with are demonstrably better than him. Now it is debatable that story circumstances had more to do with Billy being chosen than Billy himself, but considering that there are literally millions of better people to choose from, the set-up of Billy being the one person chosen immediately falls apart. Sure, the scene offers a few funny, if entirely obvious, punchlines, the arc of the film is in Billy learning to become the chosen hero, and this complaint might be knit-picky, but it’s hard to invest in Shazam‘s rules when the film itself isn’t willing to follow those same rules.
Further, while the seven sins plays a central role in the villain of the film, the actual sins presented have no resemblance to the concepts they are supposed to embody. The only thing Greed is shown to have in common with the concept of greed, is a name. (There is an occurrence much later where one particular sin is given suitable personality traits, but by then the film has already squandered several chances to reinforce its central conceit.) Worse yet is the fact that immediately after receiving his powers Billy goes off to pursue the “sins” of pride, greed, gluttony, lust, and wrath. This behavior could easily be used as turning point for Billy to become the worthy champion he was chosen to be, but instead the film ignores it all. Billy literally begins the exact course we are told lead to disaster and absolutely nothing comes of it! And we as the audience are expected to suspend our disbelief to simply buy into the sweet, coming-of-age story because we’re the audience, it’s what we do.
Yet it’s in watching Billy deal with his new powers that Shazam! is at its best, by far, if only because of Zachary Levi. Levi is pitch perfect in the part of a child in the body of a superhero. His comedic timing and delivery make even the most obvious set-ups enjoyable, and the sheer joy he emits on screen overcomes many of Shazam!‘s little bothers. The pleasure of watching Levi learn of his new powers, especially during two inspired send-ups of superhero clichés, makes every scene without Levi that much more of a slog. Of course, that doesn’t mean the scenes that do feature him are entirely without fault as even the standout of the film can’t compensate for a series of idiotic choices and the laziest, most obvious set-ups possible. Yes, I have used the words “obvious set-up” several times, and that’s because so many scenes in the film use the same structure of introduce an idea, immediately pay off that idea. There is little that is unexpected in Shazam! (the two most notable being the aforementioned inspired gags) and even less is referred to later, instead Shazam! seems to rely on either the audience not paying attention or buying so much into its image of sweetness, innocence and cheesy fun that we don’t notice what is right in front of our faces. Humor, like plot twists, is at its best when we don’t see the joke coming. Shazam! treats both humor and plot twists as a train: you know where it’s coming from, where it’s going, and there’s no way of stopping it. Even its post credits scene, while good for a chuckle, is so obvious as to not be worth waiting to see. Like Glass, the other, albeit diametrically opposed, Philadelphia-based superhero film of this year, Shazam! is in desperate need of a rewrite.
As stated, I am perfectly comfortable with conceding that maybe I’m not in the audience of Shazam!. It’s clearly a fun, harmless superhero flick that maybe I’m too cynical, too anti-nostalgic, too closed-minded, too set in the ways of modern superhero films, or not beholden enough to 80’s movies to really enjoy. What I wonder however is: who is the Shazam! audience? There are already plenty of people who aren’t willing to engage with any superhero movie. The idea of “Big but with superheroes” only works with people who are old enough to know that film from 1988. Most teenagers are too “mature” to buy into the sweetness. Most DCEU fans are too committed to the universe’s “dark and realistic” tone to now enjoy a cheesy throwback. Most “nerds” will see right through the inconsistencies. What’s left? Kids will probably like it but anyone else… It’s one thing for a film to fail to connect with the viewer. It’s another to never compel the viewer to make a connection.
Given the outstanding reception thus far, its likeable lead, its moments of genuine delight, and its break from the dreariness of other superhero films, I really wanted to like Shazam!. Sadly, the film itself didn’t offer enough to make me suspend my disbelief. The best works of fiction don’t rely on the audience to pull themselves into the film. They rely on themselves pull the audience in. They provide their own joy. It’s what they do.