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SHAZAM! (2019) is Basically the Gillette Ad

SHAZAM! (2019) is Basically the Gillette Ad

Right, last video was on Captain Marvel,
this one’s on Shazam, there’s, like, a really clever joke just, like, right there, but I don’t know how to make it, so hey! Did you know that I have dated three individual men who believe that they are Batman! My picker is broken. They all had different reasons, but they all
came to the same conclusion. They were the big dude responds to personal trauma by kicking a buncha bad guy ass with his big bootstrapped muscles and his
big bootstrapped gadget budget. Pintel: Bootstraps bootstraps.
Ragetti: Bootstraps bootstraps. I am hardly the first person to make the observation
that the Grimdark Knight as we know him here in the early aughts is the epitome of a lot
of dominant cultural ideals of masculinity, and the everpresence of the “Batman
is cool and Superman is boring” take just kinda, well, says a lot. But men, gents, lads, my dudes… y’all are kinda going through something, right now, aren’t you? I do my best not to generalize what a bunch of people
who aren’t me are thinking, but at the point when “the accepted norms of the masculine
gender role are failing us and it is time to rethink what it means to be a man in a
kinder and more expansive way” is literally being used to sell shaving cream, I think it’s safe to
say that we are Having a Cultural Moment. So, I dunno, if Batman is not working
for you, and Superman is only getting worse by the day, where do you go from there? Well, you might come up with something that
looks a lot like 2019’s Shazam! Billy, a 14-year-old foster kid with a history
of running away from home because he’s got a real mom, has greatness thrust upon him
by a desperate wizard, yes, a wizard, and gains the power to turn into Chuck but
in a muscle suit. Luckily his new foster brother Freddy is an
absolute font of superhero knowledge and helps Billy with his branding and such. But it’s gonna take more than one hero to
take down the Seven Deadly Sins, so Billy shares his powers with his siblings and decides
that Billy: Maybe this time I’d stay. So, yeah, heartwarming tale about family and
home and all that, but WAIT, there’s MORE, because Billy also has to fight a bad guy
who is toxic masculinity incarnate! Mr. Sivana: You can’t go crying to other people
all the time. A man needs to know when to stand up for himself. Sid Sivana: Dear Magic Isn’t Real Ball. Will Thad ever be a man? Ominous voice: Your father thinks you’re weak. Show him your power. Dr. Sivana: Ask the ball if you’re man enough to throw me out of this room. Oh boy, this is gonna be fun. Meet Thad. Wait, seriously, Thad?
[extended extremely unprofessional laughter] OK. This is Thad. He’s trapped in a car with his brother and
his dad, but he’s got a doodad that makes him glad. His bro jacks the toy, and that makes Thad
sad, and Thad being sad makes Thad’s dad mad. See, Dad doesn’t like it when lads get sad. You might say Dad wants Thad to be more of
a Chad. But Thad has been had, and now Thad is sad,
but now he’s got it back, take a look at the doodad. It’s less like a toy than a broken iPad,
and now Thad’s answering a fantasy want ad. A granddad who’s clad like a magical nomad
wants to find out if Thad has the heart of Sir Galahad. So he’s got a test, if you will, undergrad. See, these guys are sins, and we all know
that’s bad, but they’ve got the power to make Thad a Chad and to prove to his dad
that he’s one of the lads. Thad thinks that’s grand, and that proves
that he’s bad, so granddad doesn’t want Thad for his comrade. He ditches him via a
magic launch pad, and sends him back to own Siege of Leningrad. Thad spends his life proving he hasn’t gone
mad, and one day he’s right, and well then, things get bad. Thad sets out to prove to his dad he’s a
Chad, and then it’s just…f**king carnage. Look, you don’t need me to explain this
to you. Toxic Masculinity Bad, Thad. Which isn’t to say that this is, like, inherently
bad because it’s blunt. Blunt is good sometimes! “Bullying your kid into a narrow and heartless
vision of masculinity will originate a comic book villain and also get you killed” is
at least a solid sentiment with which to whack an audience upside the head, and living in
a cultural moment where a cartoon version of toxic masculinity is acknowledged to be
bad universally enough to work in this context definitely beats the alternative. I’m not, like, mad about Thad. It’s just that blunt is also limited. Like, what actual human is actually going
to identify with Thad’s cardboard cutout of a dad and brother? It’s very obvious that these aren’t real
characters with nuanced points of view. They’re punching bags spouting simplified
versions of talking points to dole out wedgies. And, there are other problems with this particular
storyline that emerge with even the smallest amount of scrutiny. Some of it’s just technically messy. This car crash is pretty much entirely extraneous
and makes it seem like Dad is dead, until 45 screen minutes later when Thad goes to
finish the job. And that confrontation centers the idea of
material wealth as Dad’s definition of power Thad: You honestly think all this material you’ve accumulated amounts to actual power? This is power. [Laura:] when the only other time we’ve
seen him, it was fighting one’s own battles and not playing with toys. Dad: I said no toys at Grandfather’s. Dad: You can’t go crying to other people all the time. A man needs to know when to stand up for himself. But more troubling is what this sets up for
our heroes. Thad’s whole deal is gaining power in order
to defeat his bullies in a display of strength. That’s evil, is the idea. That impulse is exactly the reason little
Thad didn’t get to become Shazam. Wizard: Only the purest of hearts can resist their temptations. So it would make sense if the kid who did
get to become Shazam, like, didn’t do that, or at least saw the error of his ways at some point? But one of the first things Billy does with
his new powers is take revenge on the kids who bully Freddy
by dropping their car off a building. And when Freddy gets his own powers and has
the opportunity to save the bullies from death by ferris wheel, he does…via direct retaliation. Bully: Are you giving us suitcase wedgies?! Obviously neither of these moments are equivalent
to Thad throwing his brother out a window and siccing bloodthirsty demons on dad and
his innocent employees, but we’re still looking at a model of tit-for-tat, might-makes-right
revenge that’s framed as pure evil when Thad does it Dad: You can’t go crying to other people all the time. Thad: You can’t go crying to other people all the time. and justified vengeance when Billy and Freddy do. Freddy: Yeah, I got a little something called a suitcase wedgie. Bully: Are you giving us suitcase wedgies? So the message here is that the problem with
using newfound strength to dole out punishment for personal injustices is really just a matter
of degrees, or worse, that toxic behavior is only toxic when toxic people do it. And that’s…well. In researching this video, I did find a Medium
post by a guy who says that Thad’s backstory helped him to finally understand what toxic
masculinity is. But. What he describes learning is that toxic
masculinity is very specifically when men bully other men, that men who are not big
muscley jocks are necessarily victims, not perpetrators of said toxicity, and that calling out entitled
Star Wars fans who don’t recognize their own misogyny is a gross misuse of the term
and in fact part of the problem. So that’s not great. It seems to me that a lot of the
conversation around “woke” messaging in media tends to revolve around this kind of
blunt object type of story element. Stuff that’s impossible to miss. Really makes you think. Boy oh boy, do We Live In A Society. And, you know, when that’s done much more carefully
and coherently than it is here, that’s got its place. But, personally, I am much more interested
in the subtleties. Dominant cultural narratives get established
and reinforced at least as much in subtext and peripherals as in central, obvious messaging,
so it makes sense to take at least some of the fight to dismantle them there, too. And believe it or not, Shazam has got some
really interesting moments that operate on this much more sneaky level. So, first and foremost, allow me to point
out, Billy doesn’t have a love interest! Not even, like, a crush! I’m not going to say that makes this movie
entirely unique among superhero origin stories or high school comings of age, but it is unusual,
to the point where the handful of moments that look like they might go there and don’t,
to me, really stand out. So let’s take a look at some of those. For me, this was the clearest one. Billy, as Shazam, has skipped school to dick
around looking cool and taking pictures with tourists, when he sees his foster sister,
Mary, about to get hit by a snowplow, so he zips in and scoops her out of the way into
a very intimate babydoll dip because that’s what heroes do. Now, thinking about this logically, Mary is
Billy’s foster sister, and while that’s not actually a blood relationship, it does
skirt the taboo closely enough that it seems unlikely that a family movie would actually
couple these two off without putting in a lot more legwork than it has as of this point. But in terms of film language and genre conventions,
the breathless romance of the damsel in distress trope is such a well-established beat that
this image of big heroic Billy scooping this pretty young woman out of danger and cradling
her lovingly in his big strong arms…I mean, tell me you’re not going there too, at least
a little bit! But Mary doesn’t behave like a damsel. She doesn’t “Ooh, my HERO!” She behaves like a person who’s preoccupied
enough that she just absentmindedly walked into oncoming traffic.
Mary: This has been such a weird day. Instead of swooning over the big strong man
who just saved her life, she offloads her troubles on this person who is, to her, a
total stranger. And Billy awkwardly and misguidedly tries
to help her. It’s really easy to see how this moment
could have been played for a very particular comedic beat where Mary walks away with a butterflies-in-the-stomach
story about how Philadelphia’s own superhero saved her life, and she vows never again to
wash the spot where his big, strong hand gripped her delicate, helpless shoulder, and then
she finds out that was her BROTHER, OH MY GOD EW EW EWWWW! Instead, it’s a very genuine familial moment
that centers Mary’s conflict as much as Billy’s, and puts the pieces in place that
later establish Mary as the smart one and give her some stuff to do. She’s, like, a real person! With real wants and needs and inner conflict
and plot agency! Ain’t that neat! But OK, as I said, she’s his sister. Outside of this shot, she’s hardly the likeliest
candidate for Billy’s kissing partner. So what about this other damsel? The first night Billy becomes Shazam, he and
Freddy start testing out his powers when they hear some high-pitched screaming and notice
this shady character trying to steal this helpless woman’s purse. With some encouragement from Freddy, Billy
dashes in to save the day, only to find out that the source of the screaming is actually
the mugger, who has been pepper sprayed by the distressed damsel. What, you thought she couldn’t take care
of herself, ya filthy misogynist? Trope, subverted! Billy: Get woke, bro! Nah, I mean, this is fine. It’s Billy’s first attempt at being a
hero, and he clumsily sticks his nose where it’s not needed. That works. But what I find really interesting here is
the fallout. It’d be easy to write this moment as Billy
trying to save face by being smooth and putting the moves on this, by all conventional standards,
very attractive woman. Instead… Billy: Yeah, Mr. Mugger Guy. Give the old lady her purse back! Normal Aged Lady: Um, I’m your age! OK, so I do want to at least briefly acknowledge
that the standard for when women are considered “old,” particularly in a romantic context, trends in the absurdly young direction. Data collected from OKCupid in 2015 shows
that while women seeking men tend to prefer partners approximately their own age, men seeking women, on average, prefer partners age 20-23, regardless of
their own age. Calling this woman, who looks to be
about my age, old in a joke whose butt is a little unclear absolutely has the potential
to reinforce some harmful societal standards. I was 23 the first time that a guy about my age,
a little bit older, in fact, dumped me for a girl five years younger than me. And he wasn’t even one of the ones who thought
he was Batman! But, consider if you will by way of comparison, a more time-honored story about a 13-year-old boy who finds himself in an adult
body and face-to-chest with a beautiful adult woman. That’s right f**kers, I’m coming for Big. Look, OK, Big is a great movie. Super fun. Made in the 90s, honestly still holds up. And Tom Hanks is whatever is a step up from
a national treasure. But indulge me for a minute in taking a look
at what is very clearly a romantic comedy between a 13-year-old boy and a woman in her
30’s. Obviously we can’t have America’s sweetheart
looking like a perv, so he doesn’t understand sex stuff. He’s totally fine openly ogling a coworker’s
bra through her shirt, though, that’s just normal wholesome teenage boy stuff! So what happens here is that Susan has to
very aggressively take the lead in order to get things moving here, and that’s…well…pff, OK. So I’ve heard plenty of discourse about
the yikes factor of this adult woman discovering that she’s a pedophile and just being, like,
wistfully fine with it. [uncomfortably making the same noise my mom’s dog makes when he wants to get up on the couch but he’s too scared to jump] I don’t want to downplay that, it is creepy,
period. But there is another factor that I think is
at least worth mentioning, which is that the underlying message here is that the ideal
man, the perfect, sweet, sensitive, caring, fun partner for a mature career woman who’s
got her sh*t together and her priorities in order, has the brain of a literal 13-year-old
boy. And f**ks with all the finesse of a 13-year-old
boy. I can’t think of a single reason why that would be a troubling message to send to cishet America. So, maybe the fact that Shazam has a very
clear opportunity to go at least a superficial version of this route, and not only doesn’t
but in fact lets Billy respond like, you know, a normal human child who sees a woman probably
at least twice his age as, like, a lot older than him no matter what body he’s in (until
he gets a little more adjusted to it, anyway), Billy: Hey, we should hang out! We’re like the same age! and that lets that woman be put off and then
genuinely scared by Billy’s weird behavior instead of swoony over his boyish charm in
conjunction with doze biceps do, is… Not The Worst Thing, Actually. But like Josh, Billy is a red-blooded pubescent
boy with curiosities about female bodies, and where this gets really interesting is
when Billy has the brilliant idea to go and learn some stuff at a strip club. Remember how this went for Josh. We, the audience, spend a not insignificant
amount of time staring at Susan’s chest through the eyes of America’s Sweetheart
Tom Hanks. But when Billy goes to the strip club…well…did
you catch it? Hold on, it happens twice. Billy had such a good time that when he needs
to help the family escape imminent peril, it’s still where his mind goes, and they
all end up back at the club, hahaha, 14-year-old boys are thinking about sex literally all of the time,
isn’t puberty funny, very good joke. But again, did you catch it? The characters go in, but the camera don’t go with
them. That is a tiny thing, but y’all, I need
you to understand how important it is. Because what this means is, we don’t have
to castrate our tweenage boys’ burgeoning sexual curiosity. It’s a natural and all-consuming part of
this stage of life for a lot of humans, and it makes sense to include it and it’s fun
to laugh about it. But since we don’t follow them into that
space, this movie manages to address pubescent straight male sexuality and use it as a punchline
without ever using women’s bodies as objects. That–seriously, that is huge. The challenge of portraying sexual curiosity
for sexual curiosity’s sake without dehumanizing its momentary object is a subtle and tricky
one, and this movie threads that needle with a frankly surprising deftness of hand. And that’s not even all! It rejects the idea that this particular kind
of sexuality is necessary to masculinity by having Pedro, otherwise the most stereotypically
manly foster brother in his stoic pursuit of swoleness, express a genuine lack of interest without shame.
Pedro: Not my thing. And it even, arguably, gives a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it
validation of sex work as work. We could maybe do without Mary’s overprotective
disgust, Mary: Really, this is the first place you think of! but for the most part, these sequences are quietly brilliant. One more really quick moment I love is that
when the whole fambam gets super, the one who gets an intimate damsel-saving babydoll
catch isn’t one of the dudes, it’s baby sister Darla.
Darla: Hi! Wow, I caught you! Again, this undercuts the romantic potential,
instead going for one more in a string of really sweet moments where the newly powered
kids surprise themselves with what they’re capable of. Pedro: I got it! I got it! Oh my god, I do got it! Also, honestly unrelated but please indulge
me for a moment, Darla getting all starstruck when she realizes she just saved Santa Claus
is among my favorite movie moments of the year so far.
Darla: Wow, it’s really you! My name is Darla, and I’ve been really good. It makes me cry every time and
I’m not even mad. Darla 2044, thank you and goodnight. Alright, so far I’ve been mainly talking
about things that aren’t in this movie, and that’s not a great place to leave any
discussion but especially this one, because it’d be remiss of me not to mention what
Billy has instead of a love interest. He has Freddy. And the arc of these boys’ relationship…well,
it is in fact not unlike to a romance. Chance brings them together in a little meet-cute,
the emotionally available one sees through the standoffish one’s act, a fun shenanigan
forces the standoffish one to let his guard down and ask the emotionally available one
for help, they have a bit of a honeymoon period until the standoffish one breaks an important
commitment to the emotionally available one, the standoffish one realizes he done goofed,
apologizes to the emotionally available one, and seals the deal with a grand gesture. Now, this isn’t to say that there’s actually like,
homoerotic subtext or romantic coding here. These characters don’t really read as
falling in love per se, not to me at least. But there’s an intimacy to their relationship
that’s relatively uncommon among stories about male friendships. Billy’s arc is, by and large, about learning
to accept the love and support of his found family, and while every character is involved
in this journey in some way, it’s Freddy at the center. Freddy’s the one who calls Billy on his
unhealthy coping mechanisms and actively encourages him to open up. Freddy: Dude, I get it. You’ve been screwed over way too many times. You don’t trust anyone. That’s the thing about invisibility. You end up all by yourself. He’s the one whose closeness makes Billy
panic and run. Billy: Maybe to this superhero, gratitude doesn’t mean having to be clingy. Maybe sometimes a superhero just wants a little me time. Freddy: You know, me time could also be construed as pushing away his family. Billy: Family. Is that what they are now. He’s the one Billy immediately turns to
when he accepts that his biological mother isn’t his real family, and he’s the damsel
Billy’s got to rescue. Billy: Freddy, you were right. I’m sorry I yelled at you.
Thad: Come home, Billy. Freddy: Billy! Supervillain! Supervillain! There’s a moment I just absolutely love
when Thad’s chasing the family and Billy scoops Freddy up and runs him to relative
safety. Not pretty Mary. Not baby Darla. Freddy. They’re a pair. Billy’s need to open up and get emotionally
vulnerable is a relatively common element of stories about male protagonists, but it’s
a need that tends to be resolved with the help of a romantic entanglement with a woman,
and this dynamic is common in actual real-world relationships between women and men as well. In her 2019 article for Harper’s Bazaar
“Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden,” Melanie Hamlett writes,
[reading] This dynamic places incredible pressure on
women who date men to singlehandedly provide their partners with a small army’s worth
of friendship and therapy, and leaves men, especially straight cis men, drowning in feelings
they’re unequipped to process. With all that in mind, there is something
softly radical about a story about a boy protagonist’s need take down his walls and defenses and
accept and offer love, getting him there not with the help and guidance of a mother figure,
not with the sympathy and tenderness of a lady love interest, but with the relentless
care and love of his bro, in multiple senses of the word, who models an emotional honesty and vulnerability that can coexist with good-natured ribbing. If we want to build a world with fewer Thads
and more Billys, we need to build a world with more Freddys. Freddy: You more of a Supes guy?
Yeah, me too! Thank you so much to my patrons for making this video possible, with a very special thank you to Michelle, Kaya, CritterZmai, and Barry. If you liked this video and you want a totally different kind of deconstruction of a totally different kind of narrative about masculinity, then you should watch Boyform’s video “Looking Back on Boys Don’t Cry.”

14 thoughts on “SHAZAM! (2019) is Basically the Gillette Ad

  1. Good video! Some very insightful things to say that I'd never seen, and honestly it's nice to hear that at least some tiny section of modern pop culture (esp superhero movies which are or were very much in the mainstream)is successfully sneaking wholesome and positive messages to help osmotically teach kids and adults to be better people. So much of media is just ruined when you look at it with critic eyes ™, so it's good to see that there's something sweet and reasonably unproblematic to talk about without looking for a token compliment for the 'criticism sandwich'.

  2. actually isnt it possible billy went for the free hotwings in the club lol. Kinda noticed how it says free wings and the camera keeps it in view plus he comes out with the hotwings. Maybe he was thinking about the food? I dont know I was thinking maybe that was the spin on the joke lol.

  3. How do you keep so consistently knocking it out of the park with all your videos about masculinity!?!? Also, really been appreciating the other youtubers you've been linking to at the end of your essays

  4. This video was great, you explained so many different points and complexities with such grace, and I'm still stunned by the rhyming at the beginning!

  5. Just a note: if you insert film clips and don't subtitle them, I can't hear what they're saying so I just end up confused because the next line of dialogue appears early. If you're going to include film clips please subtitle them too.

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