The DC movie Shazam! is essentially a children’s movie, so I don’t want to overthink it.
It also features two endearing performances by its co-leads, Asher Angel and Zachary Levi as Billy Batson/Shazam. Sometimes that’s enough to make a flimsy plot worth watching.
But the best kids’ movies are still entertaining for adults from start to finish, while Shazam! feels boring and predictable throughout. And that got me thinking… what exactly is Shazam! lacking that films like Coco or The Incredibles got right?
The answer, I think, is threefold.
So let’s look at why Shazam! — which admittedly gets so many other things right, from casting to comedy — is still a few steps short of being a truly good movie.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SHAZAM!, a film whose surprises are 90% obvious.
Shazam!’s Villain Problem
They say a hero is only as good as his villain.
In the case of Billy Batson, this is a problem, because his arch-nemesis Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) is badly underwritten.
The film starts by introducing us to Sivana as a child, as he’s summoned to The Rock of Eternity by the ancient wizard Shazam as a potential “chosen one.” Unfortunately for young Thaddeus Sivana, the wizard judges him to be unworthy of becoming his champion because he’s “not pure of heart.”
This rejection sticks with Sivana, who grows up to become a mad scientist who’s obsessed with getting a second chance to prove the old wizard wrong.
As motivations go, this isn’t half bad… but it also turns out to only be half a motivation.
Because once Sivana gets his chance, and he finally claims the power that he feels he had been denied… he turns out to have no actual plan beyond that moment.
Sure, he gets revenge on his abusive father and a boardroom full of people who disrespected him… but then what?
Well, we never find out, because that’s when the Seven Deadly Sins (who lured Sivana to free them from the Rock of Eternity in the first place) tell him “there is another.” At that moment, Sivana — whose own character arc is essentially complete — simply becomes a thug whose only stated desire is to steal Shazam’s power back from the wizard’s chosen champion, Billy Batson, just so Billy can’t ever be stronger than he is.
And that’s… not much of a motivation. Or a plot. Or really, a character.
Sivana is reduced to a generic supervillain, a flying-and-punching General Zod-like “bad mirror” of Billy Batson who exists as a plot device rather than a character with concrete desires, depth, or personality. Plus, despite allegedly being an evil genius, Sivana is both amazingly shortsighted and easily manipulated.
This touches on the movie’s second story flaw…
Shazam!’s Coincidence Problem
Shazam! is a movie whose entire plot depends on coincidences.
The searching spell the wizard casts just so happens to find Billy Batson immediately after Sivana has become a supervillain.
Mary just so happens to be crossing the street in a daze when Shazam just so happens to be close enough to save her from sudden death.
The foster kids all just so happen to go to the same school — which is odd, since Darla seems like she should still be in middle school, yet the bullies in their school are old enough to drive.
Those same two bullies also just so happen to be riding the carnival ferris wheel at the exact moment that it’s imperilled by Sivana, and Freddy — whom they usually beat up at school — just so happens to be the one who saves them.
Watching that scene, I asked myself: in what world would two miscreant teenage brothers be riding a ferris wheel together? Apparently in the same world where Billy just so happens to get the information he needs to conclude the first half of his character arc at the exact same moment that the villain captures his friends to initiate his story’s third act.
Things don’t happen in this movie because the characters want them to happen; they happen because the plot needs them to happen…
… except, ironically, Shazam! doesn’t actually NEED a villain in order for Billy to learn the thematic lesson that the film is trying to teach him.
Which brings us to the movie’s biggest story flaw:
Shazam!’s Thematic Problem
In a strong story, the action is driven by what the characters want.
But in Shazam!, the action is entirely incidental to what the characters want.
Billy wants three things in this movie: to find and be reunited with his birth mother, to be appreciated for who he is, and to avoid commitment at all costs.
All three of these desires can be grouped under one theme: Billy needs to learn to stop living in the past and lamenting what he DOESN’T have, and learn to live in the present and appreciate what he DOES have.
So the movie weirdly chooses to teach him this lesson by… turning him into an adult? With superpowers? That he doesn’t actually want in the first place?
Okay… so those superpowers must be the key to him either finding his birth mother OR learning to appreciate what he does have in his life, right?
That happens all by itself. And — just like becoming a hero — it isn’t even Billy’s choice.
First, Billy’s foster siblings work together to find his birth mother for him, without Billy even asking.
Then Billy goes to meet her… and she rejects him. It turns out the thing he’s been searching for his whole life (a reunion with his mother) doesn’t give him a happy ending. What does? Accepting his foster family as his new, chosen family… but he would have come to that conclusion by default because it was the only choice he had left.
Sivana has nothing to do with Billy consciously making this choice. Sivana capturing Billy’s friends in no way requires Billy to choose them over his mother, because she’d literally just rejected him.
Had she accepted him, but then he had to leave his mother by choice to go save his new friends, that would have shown his newfound courage, bravery, and maturity. Or, had he been presented with the choice to find his birth mother OR save his friends, him choosing to save his friends would have completed his journey toward relinquishing his past and consciously choosing his present.
As it is, Billy Batson is a passive protagonist. This story just happens to him.
And here’s the real kicker…
Look Ma, No Purpose
If you’ve already seen the movie, ask yourself this question:
If you removed Sivana, Shazam, and the entire superhero subplot from this film, what would be different about Billy Batson’s actual character growth?
He’d still have undergone a pivotal change in confidence (by sticking up for Freddy against the bullies), in self-acceptance (by moving past his desire to be validated by his mother), and in vulnerability (by finally accepting his foster siblings as his chosen family).
This makes the superhero aspect of Shazam! essentially pointless, because Billy could have learned all the lessons he needed to learn in this story without ever becoming Shazam in the first place.
And that has the odd effect of making Shazam! the first superhero origin story that’s really just a distraction from the main character’s central plot.
Just like the demons trapped inside their stone prisons on The Rock of Eternity, there is a more satisfying movie scratching beneath the surface of Shazam! Unfortunately, it never quite manages to emerge.
Much like Billy Batson himself, I guess I’ll have to stop wanting Shazam! to be what it could have been and accept it for what it really is: a halfway decent superhero comedy that’s just happy to be here.