by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.
My family and I saw “Shazam” in the theater a few weeks ago. It’s a fun little movie from the DC Comic universe — a combination of action, magic, some drama and a few larger themes. Maybe it’s because I’m a nerd and a labor economist, but beyond the entertainment three things struck me as particularly interesting.
First, the movie was really nice on “family.” Most obviously, as Shazam, Billy Batson is yet another superhero to emerge from the world of adoption and foster care (consider Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc.). There are practical reasons for using this as a literary device, but as someone who is passionate about family and taking care of orphans, I found the positive attention toward both is welcome.
Related to this, the foster parents (for Billy and the host of other children) are not flawless but they’re still heroes. They are neither over-bearing nor hands-off in their parenting style. In the face of difficult circumstances and challenging family dynamics, the couple is loving and courageous, realistic but amazing. (For another recent movie on foster care and adoption, make sure to check out “Instant Family.”)
Second, I’m not sure whether the writers and the director were aiming for political commentary but I saw an angle there too. The villain, Dr. Sivana, seems to pursue power mostly for its own sake. In contrast, think of Thanos from the Marvel universe. He wants power to do something drastic — given his ideas about environmentalism and population. He’s wrong ethically and practically, but at least he has a goal.
Maybe the movie simply suffers from lazy writing. But Sivana’s pursuit of power paralleled contemporary politics, where the primary agenda seems to be to win elections and gain power. What do the major political parties and their politicians have to offer? Not much. What do they do with power once they get it
Instead of viable ideas, we mostly get talk and personal attacks. Take popular positions. Make vague promises. Utter attractive tag lines to entice voters. Speak loudly but swing a small stick. Partisans and politicians are passionate about winning the war but they don’t know how to win the peace. They’re far more focused on victory and power than on truth, logic, economics or science.
Third, I was intrigued by the movie’s depiction of good and evil. Dr. Sivana is a caricature of evil. He’s two-dimensional — boring, really. Again, he doesn’t seem to have a goal — aside from gaining power and exacting some “I told you so” revenge. He’s the same static character throughout the movie. In contrast, Shazam is the life of the party. He wrestles with his personal flaws. He changes and grows as a human being throughout the movie.
This reminds me of C.S. Lewis in “The Great Divorce.” Lewis depicts Hell as gray drudgery where nobody wants to be near anyone else. Meanwhile, visitors from earth can’t walk on Heaven’s grass because it’s so sharp to them.
Sin often has its pleasures. (Why else would it tempt us?) But sin faces diminishing marginal returns; it requires more and more to satisfy. It reduces its practitioners to drones; it fixates on activity rather than intimacy (see also: social media). It often lives in a bubble and fails to cultivate real and lasting relationships. It imagines political solutions rather than building relationships and community.
At the end of the day, evil is two-dimensional and boring — to those who have seen and experienced something greater.
And as Lewis writes in “The Weight of Glory” about our desires: they are “not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
In its own way, Shazam encourages us to avoid the temporary but ultimately boring temptations that come our way. Instead, we should focus on living life — and living it to the full.
D. Eric Schansberg, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany and the author of two books on public policy.