Tuesday, January 7, 2020
SHAZAM! (2019), THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
Both of these films embrace nerd-culture so totally that even I, an avowed pop-culture apologist, got a little tired of the constant references.
From the marketing of SHAZAM!, with not a few references to the 1988 movie BIG, it was plain that the filmmakers were going for lots of comedy, with just enough "serious" scenes to please audiences who wanted the thrills of adventure. SHAZAM! has enough FX to make its city-slamming scenes reasonably appealing, though the average viewer has probably seen it all before.
It goes without saying that exigent circumstances prevented a faithful adaptation of Fawcett's CAPTAIN MARVEL comic book, not least because Marvel Comics presumably holds the trademark on the name. Though it's not illegal for DC to use the name for the character, Warner Brothers probably opted to use the name "Shazam" for the hero so that they could promote the current version of the character with no blowback from the MCU. This does have one major narrative consequence for the film, in that now the hero can't tell the populace his superhero name without transforming back into his mortal ID Billy Batson. The film tries to make the best of the awkward situation by bestowing many goofy names on the Hero Who Dare Not Speak His Name, such as the Crimson Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. However, that joke gets old pretty fast.
This version of Billy, rather than being a lone orphan, is swiftly lumbered with a family of five other foster kids. Four of them are zeroes personality-wise, including a young lady named Mary, who will possibly be revealed as Billy's long-lost biological sister. The fifth kid, Freddy Freeman, is a boy Billy's age, making it possible for the two of them to bond as foster brothers, even though Billy doesn't share Freddy's love of superheroic lore. But Freddy, though he gets the best lines in the film, exists merely to be Billy's sounding board when the latter has his inevitable encounter with an ancient wizard who bestows on Billy "the power of Shazam."
Naturally, "Shazam" has a rival for that power. The original hero's perpetual arch-foe was a wizened little mad scientist named Doctor Sivana, but, in keeping with some later comics-lore, this time Sivana is a frustrated dude who as a child got passed over when the wizard briefly considered Sivana for Shazam-hood. The rejected candidate, now an adult, figures out how to plunder the underground sanctum of the now dead wizard and to gain super-powers from demons contained therein, the Seven Deadly Sins.
I can certainly imagine many worse adaptations of the original Captain Marvel, and SHAZAM! is modestly entertaining, though pretty predictable. The only scene that struck me as having some of That Old Fawcett Magic was one in which Shazam manages to channel his powers into his five foster siblings-- but I confess it only has such an appeal because it's a "reference" to the way the original hero created his "Marvel Family" of Mary Marvel (sister Mary) and Captain Marvel Jr (Freddy Freeman). The sociological myth of SHAZAM is an overblown lecture on the importance of family ties, particularly when the family is conceived as a signal to diversity.
LEGO BATMAN also depends on a similar sociological lecture, but this time it's tied to the filmmakers' perception of Batman's imagined psychology. Here, instead of being an avenger obsessed with righting the unfairness of the world, he's Richie Rich As Superhero. Yes, there's a touch of the original Bat-trauma, which has caused him to shun almost all contacts with the outside world, save for his faithful butler/surrogate dad Alfred. But the trauma simply unleashes the Bat-Id, moving the crusader to pursue ever bigger and more ostentatious methods of crimefighting. He's Veblen's conspicuous consumption wrapped in a cape.
It's kind of fun to see a Batman who hasn't yet become saddled with Robin, and who won't even acknowledge Joker as his foremost villain-- which moves the Clown Prince to go looking for a new level of evil. He releases various famous non-DC villains from the Phantom Zone, and Batman's only way of thwarting all of these evils is to forge the bonds of family with New Robin, New Batgirl, and even his previous roster of rogues.
Again, most of the jokes in LEGO become repetitive pretty quickly. However, I must admit an affection for one that involves DOCTOR WHO's Daleks, which ends with Joker advising the audience to "ask your nerd friends" about them.