Shazam! and Unfocused Writing

Shazam! spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen the movie yet, do see it, then come back and read this. But really, watch the movie first.

Okay? Good. Let’s get on with this.

So, I recently saw the movie Shazam!, starring the guy from the show I really liked (Chuck). Overall, I thought it was okay, but the way the movie was structured kind of bothered me. The final battle bothered me as well. Alright, I didn’t think the movie was okay, but I wanted it to be okay. I did genuinely enjoy the parts of the movie; I just didn’t enjoy the parts together.

What do I mean by this?

To start, the movie tries to be too many things at one time. It tries to be the story of a child, Billy, looking for his mother. It obviously tries to copy the Tom Hanks film Big. It attempts a plot twist when it’s revealed that Billy’s mother abandoned him. It then tries to be a story about family and togetherness (stealing an element from the Fast and the Furious films but not executing it as well). The story tries to include a few elements, and that’s where it falls down, because it ends up focusing on none of these elements, and each element simply distracts from the other, since they really don’t fit together. For example, when the story finally comes back around to Billy searching for his mother (an act you’d think he’d commit to the moment he was given the Shazam powers, since he was shown as super intent on finding his mother up to the point that the wizard summoned him), it feels more like the writer was saying, “Oh right, we have to wrap-up that ‘finding his mother’ subplot really quick.” There was just no payoff to the whole thing (remember when I talked about payoffs or lack thereof?).

Essentially, it seemed as if the writer simply used the reveal that Billy’s mother abandoned him as a Get Out of Jail Free card. It doesn’t work, though, because it’s not a payoff; it wasn’t an aspect of the story that was explored. If adults had been telling Billy that his mother abandoned him, and Billy didn’t believe it and continued searching for his mother throughout the film, then Billy discovering that he was told the truth all along would be a payoff. It would’ve shown Billy that he was wrong, and the adults were right, and maybe he should’ve listened to them, and had he listened to them, he wouldn’t have gotten himself into so much trouble. That would’ve added to the growth of his character. Instead, what we got was a subplot that was abandoned so the film could emulate Big for a while, then we were returned to the subplot to be told that it didn’t really matter anyway, and it ends up being this situation of Billy now calling the people he was currently with “family,” because they were there for him for how long? I mean, you’d think Billy, never wanting to be with any foster family before, would simply realize that he truly is alone and simply move on and attempt to be on his own (especially since he had the Shazam powers at that point). It’s just poor execution, and that’s something we see far too often, these days, in films.

So, how would I fix this?

Well, rather than having Billy finding his mother in this first Shazam! film, I would’ve put that off to the next film, the sequel. Also, I would’ve shown right from the start that Billy’s mother abandoned him, and he knew it. Him searching for his mother would’ve been more about finding the answer to why he was abandoned, more about Billy trying to discover his self-worth.

Also, I wouldn’t have shown Billy doing anything that painted him as a troublemaker. Yes, he trolls the cops and locks them in a store, so he can give himself an opportunity to use the computer in the police car to find his mother, but instead of Billy stealing the cop’s lunch with a grin, I would show Billy as tearing open the bag and biting into the sandwich as if he was starving. Essentially, I would show that the only reason Billy does anything wrong is because he feels he has to, not because he’s having fun. He eats the cop’s sandwich to survive, and that’s all, and I’d also have the cop recognize this and comment, “The kid must be starving.” This is a point in which we could start to feel Billy’s plight: He runs away from foster homes and tries to survive on his own as he searches for his mother. It’s hard on him. He doesn’t eat for certain periods of time. In short, I wouldn’t show being a runaway as something that’s fun.

This attempt at lightheartedness early in the film also creates a problem with the wizard searching for someone who is pure of heart. How is Billy a great person worthy of the Shazam powers if he smiles while stealing a cop’s lunch? Sure, Billy saves his foster brother from a couple of bullies, but I have to wonder how many people that cop has saved from criminals, and I have to wonder if that would make the cop more pure-of-heart than Billy. So, right there, the film stumbles in getting across the idea that Billy is someone more worthy of Shazam powers than most anyone else. Also, what is the film saying about humanity when the wizard casted the spell to find someone pure of heart back in the 70s (if I remember correctly), and forty years later, there aren’t very many people who have reported being taken by a wizard and offered powers. The whole start of the film and explanations for what’s going on and why is definitely something I’d look into changing, if I rewrote the script, especially since Billy’s foster brother, under the current conditions for being granted the Shazam powers, would be a better candidate for the powers than Billy. Perhaps a fix for this would be to remove the foster brother as a target for bullying in the film and have the bullies target a kid Billy doesn’t even know.

So, what else went wrong with this movie?

I feel like the movie didn’t execute its theme very well. It had this theme of family and what that really means, but by attempting to subvert our expectations with the reveal that Billy’s mother abandoned him, the movie doesn’t allow Billy the chance to really act on this information other than to have Billy accept his foster family once he knows his mother couldn’t raise him. It’s like a quick fix of, ‘His mother explains what happened, so Billy accepts his foster family now.’ The film would’ve benefitted from an ending that has Billy only saying that he’ll try to accept his foster family, because Billy should still have little to no reason to trust anyone. To me, a willingness to try to fit with his new foster family, after years of not trying with other families, would show Billy finally opening his heart back up, which would be a gigantic step in itself for someone who feels abandoned and alone all his life. Today’s writers (and/or film studios) tend to want events to move a bit too quickly though, which is why Billy ends up as part of a happy family at the end of the film. To me, however, the whole thing feels forced.

So, what would I have done?

When giving Billy the Shazam powers, I would’ve had the wizard warning Billy to take care of obtaining power that could turn him into the monster he is using the power to fight. That would’ve melded well with the subplot of the bullies constantly picking on Billy’s new foster brother. The film could’ve shown Billy using his power to beat up the bullies, shown Billy able to have them begging for mercy, and given us a reason for the bullies being bullies, which could’ve had Billy coming to an understanding that people aren’t born evil, something or many somethings happen along the way to either steer them in the wrong direction or keep from holding them on a good path. Perhaps while the bullies are begging for mercy, Billy’s foster brother, the target of the bullying, could ask Billy not to hurt the bullies anymore. Maybe Billy’s foster brother acts as Billy’s conscience (or, as suggested earlier, if the bullies are targeting a kid Billy doesn’t know, then the kid could act as Billy’s conscience in this particular situation) while Billy is coming to grips with all of this power he now wields, and with this newfound understanding that no one is born evil (even the mother who committed what Billy feels is the evil act of abandoning him), Billy could grow, since now, he would learn something that he didn’t know before, something that would add to his character and to his ability to both possess the Shazam powers and be responsible for them.

This idea also melds well with the idea of the villain’s father essentially abandoning him (I would make a few adjustments to the villain’s story as well, so it’s clear that the father abandoned the boy after the accident, perhaps sending him away to live somewhere else while his brother was groomed to be heir to the corporate empire), and this is where we could see the split between Billy and the villain, as the villain doesn’t have a warning or people around him who care enough to keep him on a more righteous path. He doesn’t have a Jiminy Cricket to guide him. Instead, his desire to prove his self-worth by obtaining the power to overthrow his father as head of the company, no matter how many people he hurts in the process, is what paints him as the villain. That would be the main difference between the protagonist and the antagonist, not only how each character reacts to similar stimuli but how the people around each character colors their reactions. If the movie went with this type of sociological approach, we would’ve had a film that shows that life isn’t simply an individual process; there are many people involved in the shaping of a single person even though that individual is also responsible for themselves.

If Shazam! had removed the attempted twist in the story, from the beginning, we would’ve seen two children in similar situations: the villain with a father who abandoned him and Billy with a mother who abandoned him, and we would’ve seen how they each deal with those situations differently and why. Instead, a game is played with the audience by depriving the audience of important information, and the story suffers for that. It misses an opportunity to show the villain seeking self-worth by finding the wizard and obtaining the power he needs to overthrow the father who abandoned him and reflecting that in Billy’s seeking of self-worth by finding the mother who abandoned him to discover why he was not good enough to hold onto.

Focusing the story of Shazam! on Billy’s (and the villain’s) abandonment would’ve given us a tighter story, especially with a removal of the section of the film that attempts to emulate the movie Big. Instead, Billy should be depicted at trying to get a handle on his powers by himself, with perhaps his foster brother wanting to involve himself in whatever is troubling Billy. This can lead to the foster brother discovering Billy’s secret, but at this point in the story (a single movie), I wouldn’t go beyond that. I wouldn’t have anyone else in the foster family know that Billy has the Shazam powers, and I wouldn’t have the other foster children given Shazam powers as well. Not yet, at least. It’s all too much, too soon. A story should be given time to progress, characters time to interact and develop (How much time does Billy spend with his foster family before deciding that giving them powers would be a good idea?), and subplots should be explored with proper setups that lead to proper payoffs.

Unfortunately, Shazam! essentially boils down to a story of what feels like separate parts rather than a single journey: Billy trying to find his mother, then Billy and his foster brother as they have fun with Billy’s powers, and finally, Billy giving his powers to every child in the foster family. You know what would’ve been great though, as an element of the final battle? What if Billy didn’t think of giving his powers to anyone else, and his foster brothers and sisters simply drew the demons away to give Billy the chance to defeat the now mortal villain? What if the foster children got involved in the fight against the villain on their own, risked their lives, without powers, to help Billy, and after the battle, when Billy asked why they would do that for him, his foster brother responded, “Because it’s not the powers that make someone a hero,” with his oldest foster sister adding, “It’s the fact that we care about you.”

What if this is how Billy discovered that his greatest power is caring, not only his caring of others but also others caring of him?

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