Shazam: The Die Hard of the DCEU– A Movie Review

I’m only a casual fan of superhero movies in general, especially the DC movie lineup. I wasn’t really familiar with the character of Shazam beyond snippets of the superhero in shows like Young Justice. So it came as a surprise to me that not only was this movie entertaining and a breath of fresh air compared to the preceding DCEU movies, it had heart and a theme that many Catholics are familiar with: the importance of family and the battle of sin versus virtue.

Also, I’m calling it now: Even though this movie takes a lot of cues from Tom Hanks’s Big, I can already see this movie becoming the Die Hard of the DCEU: An action-packed, somewhat family friendly movie that people will watch as part of their Christmas movie marathon alongside Gremlins and Home Alone.

There’s gonna be spoilers from here on out, so if you just want my two cents, I will say that I highly recommend families see this movie. Just keep in mind that kids younger than, say, 10, might pick up on the bad language and have nightmares for weeks. The director has a background in horror movies and it really shows at times. You have been warned!

Yes, this movie does take place during the Christmas season, which calls into mind the main theme of family. Billy Batson’s main goal throughout the movie is finding his birth mother after the two of them got separated at a carnival. At the same time, he cuts himself off from really connecting with any foster family, including the group home he gets placed into. He would rather look out for number one because to him, as long as he has his mom, he won’t need anything else.

The foster family is awesome, even if I kinda wish they had more screen time so that the bond Billy develops is more believable. The main sibling that Billy connects with is Freddie, the genre-savvy superhero fanboy with a disability. He walks with a modern day crutch a la Tiny Tim. The good news is that he’s not a fragile flower the way Tiny Tim was. Instead, he helps Billy out with figuring out all the Shazam powers.

In the villain corner, we have Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. A lot of critics are saying that his character is unfortunately lacking in depth and I will agree that he doesn’t get any parallel journey the way, say, Killmonger did in Black Panther or even a personal connection with Billy other than knowing the power-granting wizard. However, Dr. Sivana does act as a foil to Billy in a thematic sense. Billy is given the powers of Shazam because he has a pure heart underneath his standoffish demeanor. Also, while Shazam is seen as a hero for the people, Dr. Sivana is literally possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins.

I mentioned before that the director’s background in horror films is alluded to in the movie. The Seven Deadly Sin demons are mostly where it shows. Even though these monsters are CGI and don’t get a lot of screentime, their grotesque, gargoyle-like appearances are the stuff of nightmares.

One thing that gets pointed out towards the third act of the movie is that Dr. Sivana’s primary demon, the one he never lets out, is Envy. Dr. Sivana’s envy is more than just a green-eyed monster. He hates the success of his abusive father and the fact that Billy got the wizard’s powers and seeks their ruin.

The “lively virtue” that combats envy (according to Catholic tradition) is kindness. Billy doesn’t start out as being a kind person all the time. But he’s kind when the situation calls for it, when it matters most. Also, Billy is surrounded by kindness in the form of his foster family. The foster parents unconditionally love him. They’ll discipline him for acting out, but at the same time, they always give him a seat at the dinner table. The siblings also help Billy find his mom.

It only makes sense that the way these demons are defeated is through Billy and his foster siblings. My favorite part of the movie was when Billy shared the wizard’s powers with his family because he trusts them enough to know they can help him fight. It was an awesome sight to see Freddy, Mary, Eugene, and Darla do battle with all the Seven Deadly Sins.

By the end of the movie, kindness wins over envy and Billy finally finds a sense of belonging that he used to push away. It cannot be any more “Christmas” than that aside from having a Nativity play!

So You Think You Can Write-Part 6.1: Protagonists

 

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How do you write a compelling main character who can take the reader on a ride and compel them to be on their side or cry over their tragedies? What does it mean when a character is well rounded? Does a character have to be good in order to be a protagonist?

If the current lineup of superhero movies gives any indication, it’s that there’s more than one way to be a compelling protagonist. Heroes like Supergirl and Wonder Woman have straightforward morals and convictions. Heroes like Jessica Jones and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, are not so clean-cut. However, what they have in common is that they all work towards a clearly defined goal and have unique, distinct personalities.

It’s really easy to try and write a novel based on your experiences and there is a way that you can do that, but don’t turn novel writing into gratuitous wish-fulfillment or a revenge fantasy. Don’t just limit yourself to making your character look different from you, either. See what you can do to make your protagonist act in a different way from you. One way to do this is to give them a personality type that’s different from yours. If you’re an introvert, make them an extrovert, for example. Check out the Myers-Briggs Personality Types and, for additional fun, sort your characters into Hogwarts houses! This will help you create a character with their own personality.

Also, make sure that your protagonist has a goal. Your main character needs to change in some way. The best stories revolve around how a character changes due to choices and/or circumstances. What does your character want out of life? How will she get what she wants? What prevents her from achieving her goal? Make this desire or goal specific!

If you want to write a female character, don’t be afraid of making your woman feminine as well as strong. In fact, I’m gonna quote Tumblr here

Screw writing “strong” women.  Write interesting women.  Write well-rounded women.  Write complicated women.  Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner.  Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband.  Write a woman who doesn’t need a man.  Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks.  THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.  Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people.  So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong.  Write characters who are people.

The only bad female character, if you ask me , is one who’s flat.  One who isn’t realistic.  One who has no agency of her own, who only exists to define other characters (usually men).  Write each woman you write as if she has her own life story, her own motivations, her own fears and strengths, and even if she’s only in the story for one page, she will be a real person, and THAT is what we need.  Not a phalanx of women who can karate-chop your head off, but REAL women, who are people, with all the complexity and strong and not-strong that goes with it.

We need strong, female characters to inspire us and young girls. However, don’t make their strength their only defining characteristic. Give your main character some flaws to overcome.

That’s how you write a great protagonist.

 

 

In Defense of the "Strong Independent Woman"

 

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I never thought there would come the day where I would disagree with Bishop Robert Barron on anything, but his latest article about the “You Go Girl” culture made me uneasy.

While I agree that parents in television, particularly dads, are usually portrayed as stupid at best and abusive at worst, I don’t agree with Bishop Robert Barron’s perspective that males are being made to appear weak in order to make women look stronger.

My friend Emily A. said

Men write these characters. In fact, I would claim that these are not elevations of women so much as parodies of both the male AND female characters.
These women aren’t smart, they are smart-asses. They are insufferably naggy women with impossible standards who don’t trust their spouse. And time and time again, the husband seems to prove them right.
The buffoon father is actually a stereotype perpetuated *by men* who want less responsibility.

Additionally, there is something to be said for stereotypes/archetypes: they exist because they *resonate* with people. Stereotypes are merely a compilation of common factors within a certain group. While they fail as a blanket statement, they are not altogether fictitious.
I think Father Barron is mixing up the concept of a caricature and a stereotype. They aren’t equivalent.

At the end of the day, though, we are all humans with failures, husband and wife alike. And we tolerate the worst on the bad days and sometimes have trouble recognizing and celebrating the best on good days. That’s human nature. It’s easier to laugh at those failings embodied in a character than dwell on them and get depressed.

I believe that when Bishop Robert Barron describes the “all conquering female,”  he is thinking of the “Mary Sue.” The best definition I can give of a “Mary Sue” is one I got from video blogger Tommy Oliver (no relation to the Power Rangers): “A character so perfect that they are never challenged by the events of the narrative.” Bella Swan from Twilight is a perfect example of a Mary Sue because the worst problem she ever had to deal with, according to her perspective, is when Edward Cullen dumped her in New Moon. She deals with having a baby and taking down an evil band of vampires way too easily and she gets rewarded for essentially doing nothing of substance. She gets the boyfriend she wanted, the perfect baby, a lavish lifestyle, and immortality, but she never earned or overcame anything in order to get those things.

Rey from The Force Awakens was cited as an example of the “all conquering female,” but she’s not a good example of what Bishop Barron is thinking about. It’s true that Rey is often mistaken for a Mary Sue because of how she was able to use the Force so easily. However, it’s shown throughout the movie that she has her own challenges and weaknesses to overcome. She fights toe-to-toe with Kylo Ren and also has to overcome her fears of abandoning her life in Jakku to become a Jedi. The male characters in The Force Awakens stand on equal ground with Rey. Finn especially is considered a deuteragonist because the movie focuses just as much on his character growth as it does Rey’s.

I think Bishop Robert Barron is trying to advocate for better role models for men in the movies and TV shows we watch. I think that the potential for good role models expands beyond Sully and Deepwater Horizon. Captain America, while not perfect, is a role model for any man because he’s willing to do anything for the ones that he loves.  The Flash has a few good male role models as well, including three characters who are fathers: Joe West, Henry Allen, and Harrison Wells from Earth 2. Barry Allen is also a good role model for young men because while he makes his share of mistakes, he does his best to learn from them in order to become a better person.

While I agree that women have been portrayed as weak in the past, the task of trying to make women strong and independent have led to a whole new kind of female stereotype: The Broken Bird. To quote the Nostalgia Critic:

“Women in the media for so long were always the emotional support, the damsels, the smiling pretty faces, so in the 90’s, there was a desperate need to change that. Oh, not by making them unpretty, we wouldn’t do that, but we suddenly made them cold, bitter, confrontational, and overly strong, to go out of their way to show that they’re not those old emotional stereotypes, and instead make way for new emotional stereotypes. For you see, in every 90’s film, the woman behind this strong independent wall that won’t let everybody in,  is a sad little bunny rabbit that will eventually let down her defences and reveal a tragic backstory. So you see, she wasn’t a strong, confident worker just because she was a strong, confident worker. Deep down she just wants to be held like any other fragile woman. Oh, I don’t want to think! I just want to be loved!”

In other words, the “strong, independent woman” in a lot of movies and TV still needs all her problems solved by having a man in her life. To quote my friend Mary: “Closed off? Man will open you up. Insecure? Man will make you feel better. Lonely? Man got you covered.”

There’s one example in my life of a wonderful, strong, female heroine that doesn’t sacrifice her femininity in order to be badass. And the men in her life aren’t made weaker in order for her to be stronger. Ironically, she was created by someone who loved the atheist philosophers Sartre and Nietzsche.

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I can’t imagine my life without Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The overall theme of the show is dealing with things that come with growing up and becoming an adult. While Buffy, may appear to be a good example of what Bishop Robert Barron is talking about, she is actually a great example of a well written strong female character. She is strong, but she has her moments of vulnerability. She defeats evil on a weekly basis, but she also has friends and family that she loves unconditionally. She’s a force for good, but she also makes some mistakes that she has to learn from. And no male character is made weaker so that she can be stronger. All of Buffy’s male enemies were formidable opponents. Giles, Buffy’s mentor and father figure, contributed his intellect and wisdom. Xander, in spite of his flaws, was a young man with a good heart and has saved the day a couple times. And Spike goes through a lot of changes that kept his character interesting and complex without sacrificing his own strength and charisma.

I think that strong, female characters can be created without the women needing a man or without a man becoming weak at her expense. Men and women, fictional or nonfictional, need to be treated as equals. To quote my friend Jillian:

Male characters, particularly father types, shoud not be dumbed down to make way for “strong independent female”? But should female characters be written to be the worst qualities of men in order to be strong/independent (unless it’s some kind of well fleshed out redemption arc)? Heck no. Is it possible to have a realistic strong female character alongside a realistic non-dumbed-down male character? Yes, and there are a plethora of examples. Should we stop fighting for fair treatment of and well written female characters in movies/comics/tv because some male characters are written poorly? No, because the former does not cause the latter.

Tl;dr: Strong female characters are not the cause of the bumbling dad/emasculated male character.