How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
DC’s latest film Shazam! aims at three goals. All at once it’s a fun children’s movie, a pop-mythic addition to the DC meta-verse, and a heartfelt found-family film.
That’s a lot of superpowered goals in one film. And like the film’s hero, Billy Batson—the immature teenager who struggles with his magically given hero-identity—Shazam! tends to zap out before accomplishing its mission. It provides lightning-wisecracks, rockets about the sky to fight bad’uns, and yet stays grounded on Earth for genuine family-connection moments.
That’s not to say the film is lacking in fun. But, like its own tender hero, this story-world really needs more time to find its grown-up potential to be a strong addition to the DC lineup.
Shazam! introduces us to 14-year-old Billy (Asher Angel). Unlike so many other superhero origin stories, he was not orphaned by millionaires or abducted by aliens, but simply abandoned by his birth family. So he has grown up disillusioned by the world, despite multiple offers of help.A hero’s journey certainly isn’t about less than family, but should be about more.
Good people want to help Billy, including a flawed yet compassionate foster family, the best I’ve seen put to film. The kids are cute and precocious; the parents even sort-of pray at meals and encourage their foster children’s academic growth. But Billy is determined to reject all their seeming goodness and longs to find his birth mother.
Of course, this also being a superhero movie, the search instead finds Billy transported to the Rock of Eternity, hosted by the dying wizard Shazam. Said wizard grants Billy the power to become a champion adult hero simply by shouting “Shazam!” This grown-up version of Billy (Zachary Levi, having the time of his life) sports a red jumpsuit, glowing lightning chestplate, and fluffy white cape. Because why not?
Here Shazam! also seems to stretch some credulity, at least among world-building sticklers. Such geekier viewers could have accepted if the film ignored the DC film continuity that started in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, when world citizens are shown (at length, and to a fault) with mixed reactions to metahuman people. But Shazam! presents a world in which civilians have warmed up to superheroes—or even started ignoring them—just like you would be familiar with cosplaying Spider-Mans or Batmans on street corners in Los Angeles.
Apart from these geeky nitpicks, this over-familiarity with heroes may keep Shazam! from soaring too high. For instance, fellow foster son Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) reveals he enjoys several superhero fandoms. He’s got the shirts and the merch right onscreen. That way, when Billy gets super-heroed, he consults with a built-in fan who can connect Billy back to reality—and help us explore what could have been the film’s best challenge: to ask about the meaning of heroism, the theme of what heroes do and why.
Sure, once Freddy meets the adult superhero version of Billy, they do what kids are likely to do: test out his new superpowers and pursue hijinks, like trying to buy beer at the convenience store. These hilarities truly leap off the screen, mostly because they’re character-based humor, as opposed to mere genre-subversion or “witty banter.”
Yet the story rightly pauses to remind us that real heroes are meant to stop muggings, catch runaway buses, and fight supervillains on special occasions. What it leaves unexplored is the question of why? What higher code requires a hero to do good deeds? Such a heroes’ code need not come from some in-universe Scripture. It need only be reflected by existing heroes such as Superman or Wonder Woman. And yet the film doesn’t explore why these heroes do what they do. We’re given only one hero’s frustrating pseudo-cameo, played as a gag, with the end-credits animations seeming to spoof other DC heroes.
Instead, Freddy views these heroes as simply his world’s version of celebrities, who also happen to have cool powers, much like our typical morally inspirational figures.
Thus, Billy is left with no real reason not to use his powers to show off, wow the populace, and recklessly endanger highway traffic with gratuitous use of lightning hands. Although the wizard promises that one of Billy’s powers will be “the wisdom of Solomon,” this must be one of those abilities that’s unlocked at a future upgrade.
Fortunately, viewers needn’t rely on Shazam! alone to supply deeper meanings.
DC fans (or viewers of the previous films) can guess that Superman has won the world’s admiration through his embrace of self-sacrifice and resurrection. Or that Batman has put his fallen anti-hero ways behind him. Or that Wonder Woman and Aquaman have gained their fame by serving as inspiring protectors.
Casual and superhero fans alike can also appreciate the surprising depth of the film’s evildoer, the envy-ridden Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). As a child, years before the wizard chose Billy, Sivana was also magically abducted—away from his emotionally abusive father and older brother—and offered this ability. Here the film dares to suggest that even victims can become villains, for even as a boy, Sivana craved power, not heroism. He intentionally surrenders to literal temptation from creature-embodiments of the Seven Deadly Sins. For that choice, he’s banished.
Years later, as an adult, the frustrated Sivana breaks into the wizard’s chamber and steals the forbidden power, to be possessed by the creature—Sins himself.
For all the film’s maturity struggles, this could be the story’s heart: the adult Sivana, who chooses to regress to the level of a wicked child, versus the child Billy, who is magically transformed into a super-adult who must put away childish things.
Still, those child-versus-adult themes are only partly explored on the way to the story’s clearer thematic resolution: What good are superpowers if you don’t have someone to share them with? By the end, Billy learns—as we knew he would—to rely on his new brothers and sisters, all of whom experience their own heroic moments. It’s a great step for this story and a welcome reminder that commitment to family, not just good friends or allies, is essential for a superhero’s journey.
Still, I’m left wondering where a Shazam! 2 could go from here. However sincere, the “all a hero needs is family” theme only goes so far. In reality, family members, like anyone else, will fail you, misuse their abilities for evil, or simply get into constant fights over who uses the bathroom next. If families are focused only on themselves, without a greater mission and morality from outside, they will surely fall apart.
A hero’s journey certainly isn’t about less than family, but should be about more.
Here’s hoping future onscreen adventures of Shazam! and family can mature with these ideas—not just for thematic growth, but for DC franchise growth. After all, real heroes in fiction, as in reality, shouldn’t stop at just finding a family to call their own. Real heroes also need to find and join a Justice League.
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