America has two Captain Marvels. One debuted last month but the original is hitting screens now, and it’s a better movie. “Captain Marvel” is a silly fantasy about individualism; “Shazam,” the new name of the original Captain Marvel, is about elevating family over individualism.
“Captain Marvel” is a sleek movie, appears very feminist (without actually being so), and was made under the supervision of the once-in-a-generation production genius, Kevin Feige, who runs Marvel and has not flopped since 2008. So the movie made a billion dollars, about a third of which came from America. Clearly, Feige runs a team that knows what fantasies we want to indulge and how to lie to us. But at the end of it, all he has to offer is the notion that if you believe in yourself, you can be a hero all on your own, without anyone, and especially without family, which is strikingly absent from the movie.
But it’s now clear we cannot become the celebrities we worship on the big screen. All our social crises are rooted in a dawning awareness that we’ve believed in fantasies for a long time, and that too many of them have failed. Our culture is lagging far behind our politics, because there’s still so much money in the beautiful lie that we are morally pure and just need more power to succeed. Like Captain Marvel herself, we just need to punch people really hard, and then we’ll win. Sure.
The story of “Shazam” is in many ways the opposite. In “Shazam,” individualism is a curse. It means being alone, abandoned, an orphan. That’s Billy Batson, who later becomes the hero Shazam. He believes his mother lost him in a crowd, when he was still very small. But she didn’t just lose him, she also abandoned him. He breaks out of every foster home trying to find her. Yet she cannot be bothered by him even when he does find her. You can see why this boy would want to become an invulnerable hero. It’s a fantasy we all have, and it’s really important for him.
At the same time, the story shows the only invulnerability we have in this world is a loving family. Because of his obstinate running away, Billy ends up in the only foster home in Philadelphia that might actually save him.
This foster family is a beautiful image of America: Loving parents who never punish, and many siblings of different races and sexes who may quarrel, each trying to find his individuality, but who love and even like each other. They say grace together before dinner. This is what it takes to grow out of the individualism that tells Billy he cannot trust anyone, love anyone, or live with anyone, keeping him trapped in reenactments of the way his mother and father abandoned him.
The movie discreetly suggests far more Americans are in Billy’s situation than would care to admit. There aren’t that many orphans among us, but there is a terrible loneliness and lack of trust, hence the fantasy about super-heroes: That’s what we believe it takes to make a difference, to get attention, to be anybody. Accordingly, Billy turns into Shazam and immediately proceeds to become a YouTube celebrity. Finally, people love him and he gets to have fun. Isn’t that what freedom is all about? We look for love in all the wrong places if we don’t have love at home.
But as soon as he becomes a celebrity, Billy acquires an enemy who wants to destroy him and take his power. Shazam is powered by morality, but his enemy gets his power from the seven deadly sins. That’s one of a few striking nods to Christianity in the movie—again, a rare thing in our superhero blockbusters. But if you think about how Superman is presented by Zack Snyder rather like Christ, you might begin to notice that DC movies are slightly more open to Christianity than Marvel movies. So Shazam has to save his family from the seven deadly sins and grow up.
So far, so good. Add to this the joyful acting by Zachary Levi, who captures the pleasure of power—the magic of being able to do things—and the notion of being a boy in a man’s body, and you have a hit. There are many other things to enjoy in the movie, including all sorts of surprises I won’t spoil, but which make this film far more like the delightful “Into The Spiderverse” than the banal, moralistic stuff the Marvel Cinematic Universe produces. Go see the movie — you will love it.
But that is not to say “Shazam” is a perfect movie. For a film where the villain is the seven deadly sins, it’s hard to notice that the foster family at the center of the story—both the two parents and their six children—is free from sin. These people are angels, the way we might present ourselves to make a good impression. They have absolutely no temptations. Sin is dangerous to mere bystanders in Philadelphia, but not to this perfect American family, not for a second, not even for dramatic effect. Billy himself has to learn to trust and to face his fears, but he’s never tempted by lust, wrath, or anything else.
This is the same problem in almost every superhero movie, the fantasy that a good guy punching a bad guy is how our world works. We are perfectly moral and we just need more power and then we’ll be happy.
“Shazam,” in a strangely moralistic moment that’s supposed be teachable, says to the villain: What good is power if you can’t share it with people? As though the problem were that some people want power only for themselves, but others are willing to share it. This is not to say that a thirst for power isn’t evil, but both family and America are about more than sharing power. And you cannot defeat evil by punching it.
In this movie, you can. The all-American family wins. Better family than loneliness, better love and trust than self-obsession, but we’re still stuck in a situation where we cannot admit we need each other precisely because there’ll never be enough power to defeat evil. There will always be fear, we will always have to face our mortality, and we will have to love each other even when we’re not winning.
Shazam never has to grow up because he has so much power. In reality, we don’t have that power—we’re not born winners—we have to deal with suffering and tragedy, not just find the right villain to punch. If we cannot admit there’s evil in our hearts too, not just in the hearts of people we hate, we’re still children.