Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Booksmart" Crams Problematic Predecessors for the P.C. Midterm, Forgets about Comedy

© Annapurna Pictures, modified

Whatever people choose to think of Roger Ebert’s liberal (and also liberal) use of his 4 star rating, the critic once astutely wrote that, “No good movie is too long, just as no bad movie is short enough.” Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart doesn’t run for longer than 105 minutes, but I can’t imagine a version of the movie that wouldn’t be fundamentally broken. Vaunted in advertising and pseudo-advertising (i.e. reviews right out of SXSW) as “female Superbad” for the Zoomer generation—a compliment suggesting a viewer who has exceedingly fond memories tied to Superbad—, Booksmart trades in a generic high-school comedy plot about partying hard and getting laid that would be wholly unremarkable and fly under the radar of any discriminating person if not for its cunning, politically correct casting choices.

The movie is set in some kind of small prep school where all the rising graduates with names are going to an Ivy League college or heading straight into the workforce… at Google. “Don’t judge me, but… Harvard,” says one of the teens to the competitive Jewish girl Molly, the more outgoing half of the straight-As duo who decide to live it up the night before they get their diplomas. Har har moments like these underscore the film’s slavish endorsement of the money-fleecing scams that are for-profit, intellectually specious institutions like Yale and Harvard, the latter of which is recognized for accepting celebrities with subpar testing scores so long as they promote the fad political cause of the month.

Confronted by the sudden epiphany that having good academics and good fun aren’t mutually exclusive goals in high-school, Molly berates her virginal gay best friend Amy into infiltrating the cool kids’ party, where both hope to make up for the missed opportunities and see some physical action. Making the Michael Cera character a lesbian is the film’s most inspired deviation from Superbad, since Amy’s defective gaydar compounds her lack of social confidence and belonging. However, her gayness has the downside of unveiling the writers’ similar lack of fortitude as they lightly skip around the eggshells of issues that could rile their young audience up into a cannibalistic Twitter mob. Teen comedies frequently come up in “Could it be made today?” discussions because they reflect the ever-shifting Overton windows of their respective youths. In the same way that Superbad repudiated the glamorized sexuality or supposed “creepiness” of John Hughes’s hits, e.g. Sixteen Candles, Booksmart suggests that young Millennials and Zoomer Tumblrites can no longer tolerate some of the edgier, more truthful sides of Superbad.

As any devout LGBT supporter would feel pressured to do, Wilde gives life to an idealized neoliberal universe where seemingly every character, no matter how mean or vindictive, presumes homosexuality is normal and beyond the boundaries of reproach. It’s hard to judge what convenience beggars belief more: that Amy’s parents, over a celebratory dinner they’ve prepared, casually give their daughter their assent to go have sex with Molly at her house (the most plausible alibi these #smartwomen could brainstorm for slipping off to the party), or that none of the bullies seize upon her sexual preference as an object for ridicule.

Does Booksmart feel more toothless than its forerunners because its subjects don’t flaunt their cruelty as much and the movie is merely portraying their deference to political-correctness accurately, or is the film itself a product of inhibitions and social conformity? I haven’t set foot in a high-school since my SAT, but I did go to a university that felt like high-school, and rewatching Superbad just confirmed my notion that Booksmart buckles under the timorous impulses of its writers. In the 2007 film written by and loosely based on Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the young cast members casually denote effeminate or atypical behavior as “gay”, which was true to my college experience, as I’m sure it remains true to current high-schoolers’. Making matters more problematic and funny, Jonah Hill addresses Christopher Mintz-Plasse as “Fagell” throughout the film, a decision that Rogen now claims to regret. The 2019 film features no such displays of antagonism because it’s terrified of people who can’t distinguish a writer’s words from the words of a character.

I anticipate a defense that Booksmart is less abrasive and mean-spirited than Superbad merely by token of its focus on women, who don’t find as much camaraderie as men in skewering each other’s sexual prowess and proclivities. On the other hand, the writers seem largely disinterested in the myriad ways that women can demean and torment each other, or in the friction that could develop between adamantly leftist #Resisters and their peers. Putting aside the utter detachment that would be necessary to put an “Elizabeth Warren 2020” sticker on a car belonging to an 18-year-old, Molly and Amy don’t come up against any intellectual adversaries because the script has situated them in an idealized neoliberal bubble. Even Jason Sudeikis’ jaded principal gets caught with his metaphorical pants down listening to the Lean In audiobook in his Uber car, because nothing apparently is funnier than the thought of a white male hating himself enough to read Sheryl Sandberg. An hour into the film, I could have gone for one of Adam McKay’s and Will Ferrell’s stick-figure conservatives, just so the main characters wouldn’t have to exist in a vacuum, unopposed by anyone and everyone. Some paid critics’ blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes (a utility that gets more broken and oxymoronic by the month) extol the lack of “meanness” in Booksmart. To each their own, but if I wanted to watch a story without adversity or the more unattractive sides of humanity, I could always take a nap on my couch in front of HGTV or Chopped.

For a project bent on breaking down stereotypes and giving dimension to “less visible” groups, Booksmart has an odd habit of validating its audience’s preconceived assumptions about masculinity and femininity. The Lean In scene begs a chuckle because of the principal’s embarrassment, having been exposed as liking something that he, a heterosexual man, should not like. A second-act twist, admittedly well staged in an underwater pool shot, reveals that the frizzy-haired skater girl whom Amy formerly fancied a lesbian swims the other way, subverting both her and our expectations. In order for this scene to work as a surprise at all, one has to assume that some girls, either by the way they present themselves or by their facial features, fit a lesbian profile more than others, a postulate that sets the gay community back more than any Bohemian Rhapsody or Blue is the Warmest Color.

With a whole lot of smaller reviews on my back burner, I could have tried to mash Booksmart into another indie movie round-up, but that would make less sense than wrangling John Wick into an arthouse round-up. The film owes its existence to the generous pockets or astounding vanity of Megan Ellison, the daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison who has made a name for her Annapurna Pictures by throwing exorbitant resources at financially insolvent, “important”, Oscar bait projects, often of a leftist bent, that unlike most films don’t need to turn a profit. In Booksmart, Ellison’s unlimited money appears to have been funneled straight into the soundtrack, which features such heavyweights as LCD Soundsystem, DJ Shadow, and Death Grips, although Wilde disrespectfully abuses the last group’s “I’ve Seen Footage” for a loud instrumental transition gag, anonymizing them.

The movie will surely be lauded for casting relatively unknown or even non-professional actors, but that praise also belies the insular, elitist nature of the casting; more than just a lazy ripoff of Superbad without any balls, Booksmart is an avante-garde, metatextual art film enlisting the real-life younger sister of Jonah Hill to play roughly the same character that he did 12 years ago. Clicking through the cast list on IMDb reveals additional noteworthy, if not surprising, connections: Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Molly Gordon, daughter of a screenwriter-producer and a Curb Your Enthusiasm director, and Billie Lourd, daughter of Carrie Fisher, who was of course the daughter of Debbie Reynolds. Being a laissez-faire capitalist, I point these details out not to discredit the casting choices so much as to assert that Booksmart is about as “indie” as Bernie Sanders.

The camerawork, production design, and other elements are serviceable, though not enough to compensate for the blandness of Wilde’s direction. In a moment that’s pretty indicative of the film’s artistic sensibilities, Amy and Molly get into an argument at the party that Wilde captures in one long take, woozily bobbing back and forth between the two girls as their tempers fly out of hand—so impressive, at least until the ambient soundtrack gradually swallows the audio of their quarrel, as if to tell anyone who didn’t get it or wasn’t paying attention that this is a very low point indeed. What’s the purpose of writing, shooting, and performing a friendship fallout scene if you’re going to make half of the scene illegible in post-production? Booksmart has precious few spaces where music isn’t overtly lending the mood of a scene, which may appeal to its target psychographic of young adults prone to saying, “I love music. I listen to a little bit of everything except country.” It also features a stop-motion drug trip in case the rest of the movie didn’t already scream, “Quirky directorial debut.”

Booksmart is hard to hold in contempt for very long if only because it feels emblematic of Hollywood’s new puritanical norm in the Trump era, which in 2018 saw one of the most banal and artistically bankrupt years in film history. Annapurna are pushing the film as a cutting-edge romp, full of risqué humor and political zealotry, but the final product can’t even find amusement in a high-school student seducing and having sex with his teacher in a fictional scenario. “You’re 20, right?” Jessica Williams asks pointedly, half to the student and half to the bloggers or SJWs carefully scrutinizing the movie for clickbait. Wilde forgets the principle Superbad knew so well, that there’s much hilarity to be mined from people taking drastic measures to misbehave. If it’s neither illegal nor, according to the liberal metric of consent, immoral for the student to bed his teacher, then why does Booksmart expect me to cackle at them doing it?

AUTHOR’S CORRECTION/ADDENDUM: The Sandberg audiobook scene takes place not in the car of the principal, who does awkwardly try to strike up a conversation with Amy about feminist music, but in the vehicle of another white male character. I originally conflated the two car ride scenes through an error of memory.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"GAME OF THRONES" SCANDAL: Inside the Shocking Fall of the Nation's Top Recap Writer

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Search engine optimization and softcore pornography practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

Left: Arya Stark fights the Army of the Dead at Winterfell; Right: Wes O'Fink. © Home Box Office / Wes O'Fink

People flipping through the Life section of USA Today on Monday were confronted by a rather glaring omission: for the first time in nearly six years, the company did not run a recap article for the previous night’s episode of Game of Thrones, not even in the Opinion, Money, or News section. That’s because, as of Sunday night, TV critic and Senior Analyst of Westeros Affairs Wes O’Fink no longer works for the famed nonpartisan newspaper, which he nurtured into a go-to source for reporting on the power struggles and scandals pandemic to the war-torn continent.

It took USA Today’s board of directors no more than 36 hours to respond to an internet furor sparked by incendiary tweets that O’Fink posted before he worked for them. Sometime around Saturday morning, users on the social network unearthed misogynistic comments that the analyst seemed to have made off the cuff in reaction to earlier seasons of Game of Thrones. The earliest of the tweets, which O’Fink has since deleted, focused on a particularly rough and memorable encounter between Daenerys Targyrean and Khal Drogo from Season One.

“Drogo did nothing wrong, also Jason Momoa can GET IT,” he wrote after the premiere of the second episode. Many Game of Thrones fans, however, choose to see the scene as more distressing than erotic, and tweeted at the analyst in droves to say that his rhetoric normalizes rape culture.

O’Fink didn’t stop at this admittedly ambiguous moment, though. In 2014, he weighed in on the controversial relationship between the incestuous Lannister twins, specifically the infamous scene where Jaime forces himself on a reluctant Cersei right next to Joffrey’s dead body. His take reads: “Jaime be like, ‘Your mouth is saying one thing, but your body’s saying something else.’ #GOT #BetterThanBrazzers.” Game of Thrones analysts and professors at USC universally agree with the episode’s director that Jaime’s actions constituted rape, and academics have identified denial of this fact as an ipso facto symptom of rape culture.

During the last season before he joined USA Today as a journalist, O’Fink dabbled in victim blaming yet again, sharing an offensive meme based on The Dark Knight. In the meme, Heath Ledger’s Joker character reflects, “Massacre countless people including a pregnant queen at a wedding, nobody panics; have Sansa Stark get raped off-screen, well then everyone loses their minds!” O’Fink was presumably referencing the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which critics and politicians regarded as a low point for the series. The tweet is made still more disturbing by the known connections between clown symbols and white supremacist groups online.

O’Fink waited until Sunday morning to address the public backlash against the things he’d written. Instead of apologizing for belittling the pain of the characters, though, he doubled down on those and other statements.

“To anyone who went creeping through my profile looking for some old jokes to twist against me for a keyboard warrior medal or dopamine rush, I hope you get impaled by the Night King and exposed as the zombies that you are,” he wrote in a series of enraged tweets. “I will enjoy finishing up one of three articles I’ve already started for #BattleOfWinterfell and invite all the haters to suck on it.”

None of those pieces have materialized, however, as USA Today told the analyst that very evening that he was fired effective immediately. In a public statement first shared by Deadline, the paper explained, “In the #MeToo era of heightened sensitivity to the experiences of women including Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Danyreas Targyrean, we apologize to all our readers for the repellent statements made by one of our former staffers. Rape is never a laughing matter, and we hold our recap analysts to a higher standard of professional conduct than that displayed by Wes O’Fink.”

USA Today also disclosed that they had contacted the FBI to investigate whether their writer had committed any crimes by explicitly wishing for his detractors to be killed by the Night King. “Not every threat of violence is genuine,” the paper read, “But when someone sends a threat with that degree of specificity, the only responsible option is to take it seriously.”

The reaction on social media to O’Fink’s dismissal was largely positive. One user named Fiona Marrow said, “USA Today took less than two days to adopt a common-sense 21st-century solution to an abuser. America, are you listening?” Others noted that O’Fink will be entering a tough job market for Game of Thrones recappers and reporters in general, considering the wave of journalist layoffs at BuzzFeed News, Huffington Post, Vox, Vice, Refinery29, and other respected online publications. “Better get used to Kraft and ramen, @BestWes,” scoffed Bob Breichner, an actor-turned-activist who has a blue check mark.

For many, however, the termination of O’Fink couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time, as the third episode of the eighth season threw viewers headlong into the epic Battle of Winterfell, one of the most deadly mass killings in a nation long burdened by sword violence. The absence of a designated expert covering the bloodshed in Game of Thrones feels especially poignant in the era of fake news and concerted efforts to suppress the freedom of the press.

USA Today has assigned TV critic Patricia Crummer to cover O’Fink’s responsibilities until they hire a permanent replacement, but some find even that measure inadequate, given the magnitude of the events in Sunday’s episode. “It’s like we’ve become Idiocracy,” said YouTube commentator Cenk Uygur with a heavy sigh on The Young Turks’ weekly review special. “This is history in the making, and you’re going to fuss over a couple bad words said years ago by a journalist, one of the people we need most right now? Are you for f***ing real?”

Indeed, O’Fink is not without vocal defenders. Several cast members of the show wrote an open letter to USA Today on Monday pleading for his reinstatement. According to the signees, including Emilia Clarke, Kit Harrington, Sophie Turner, and Maisie Williams, O’Fink was a “victim of internet trolls and character assassination.” The letter went on, “We believe his cancellation does a disservice to our show, which has always forced the topic of rape in a mature and penetrating manner.” Commenters on the USA Today Facebook page also questioned if terminating O’Fink is consistent with the paper’s centrist, independent political stance, which makes it a printed competitor to NPR and CNN.

Whatever the future holds for Wes O’Fink, the outcry over his Game of Thrones criticism has renewed conversation about the necessity of unregulated administrative regulation of social networks. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has attracted criticism for lax enforcement of the website’s hate speech guidelines, making it a favored platform for conspiracy theorists and noted alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Gavin McInnes, James Woods, Laura Loomer, Tommy Robinson, and Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad.

The Gannet Co. is currently accepting applications for a new critic to write about the developments both in Westeros and Westworld. Among the requirements listed are a Bachelor’s degree in History, Political Science, Journalism, or International Studies and at least three years of experience analyzing Game of Thrones for an established podcast, newspaper, journal, or think tank.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Belated Thoughts on "Us", "Shazam", and the State of Art Criticism

Jordan Peele and the Soft Bigotry of Lowered Expectations

The following contains brief spoilers for Us, mostly in the third and fourth paragraph, so if for some reason you’e yet to see it and are waiting on the home release, you may want to bookmark this page and come back later.

As more and more curious people come out of the woodwork to understand the swollen hype around Us, which shockingly grabbed the best opening weekend gross for an original, non-animated film since Avatar, Jordan Peele’s sophomore film will probably gain a reputation as a cinematic personality test, splitting viewers into more creative/liberal thinkers and logical/conservative ones. For the latter party, the mental exertion of dwelling on the premise for more than 30 seconds will both hurt their brains and dilute whatever emotional response the movie momentarily wrung from them. “Why did the doppelgangers wait until the present day to attack their surface-world counterparts?” these critics will ask. “Why did the rules that restrained them for so long arbitrarily cease to function, and why is the central family able to exploit those rules for survival anyway? Nothing that happens has a logical reason for happening in the time or manner it does, and only happens so that there can be a movie.”

The liberal party of thought, in contrast, will undoubtedly chastise the “nitpickers” for fixating on plot holes to an unfair extent, missing the dense forest of political themes and symbols for the trees of how it all works. “It’s all a metaphor, and should be treated as such,” they will argue. “Focusing on the mechanics of how the doppelgangers move or reproduce or survive ignores the deeper, more crucial subtext of the movie, which is about disenfranchised or forgotten people living in the shadows. Also, Jordan Peele is producing the reboot of The Twilight Zone, and since nobody raises the feasibility of a gremlin terrorizing William Shatner on the wing of a plane, Us deserves the same suspension of disbelief. Also, you raved about Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Mr. Author, and that movie literally makes no sense, so you’re a hypocrite.”

Nothing would bring me more pleasure than to take Us as an extended Twilight Zone episode and grapple with its ideas separate from the linear home invasion plot. At times the movie seems to court an allegorical reading, as in the mind-bogglingly hokey declaration by Lupita Nyongo’s double: “We’re Americans.” Get it? Because Us = U.S. I’m certain almost nobody else noticed this connection. As fleeting broadcasts and exposition dumps peel back the curtain on a heavily coordinated, nationwide clone uprising, Us half-heartedly masquerades as a class warfare fable, designed more to jog the moral noggin than to move logically from point A to point B.

Nonetheless, Us differs significantly in practice from mother!, one of my favorite films. Whereas the latter worked as a Kierkegaardian satire staged in a malleable, figurative environment, with some Lynch and Polanski elements thrown in to distort reality even further, Us is definitively not an allegory, and so it has the added burden of maintaining some internal consistency. Most of Us’ narrative shortcomings could be alleviated by merely leaving the doppelgangers’ origins open to interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with choosing Pure Evil or Magic as the threat to be overcome; whatever deviation from our material world is necessary, audiences will generally allow it if the storyteller announces it up front. Peele sets up his grand reveal in a multitude of places: text drawing attention to a network of underground tunnels, seemingly throwaway dialogue about government mind control, a creepy zoom shot of caged rabbits all along a wall. When he does at last unveil the truth, though, I couldn’t help but wish he hadn’t. I didn’t need a real-world, rational explanation for the origins of the tethered, but since the author saw fit to provide one, such is the lens by which many will reasonably judge, and thereby reject, his text.

With the exception of its opening flashback to a stormy night in Santa Cruz, freed of any overbearing music or editing tricks, Us never particularly inspires fear, nor does it earn its comedic beats as well as Get Out, which kept the horror and the humorous knuckling of liberals mostly separate yet equal, so to speak. Left with a defective story occasionally elevated by inspired string sections, some cool shots, and a decent dual performance by Lupita N’yongo, the average horror fan will disassociate from the plot holes of Us by playing spot-the-film-reference (There’s Funny Games! And there’s the ’78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers!) and later gawk at the onslaught of utterly shameless rave reviews penned by professional journalists.

Has another movie’s point more expertly eluded its target audience than that of Get Out? A rare film from mainline Hollywood to reach across the partisan divide, Peele’s directorial debut spoke to certain pockets of conservatism by relentlessly taking the piss out of guilt-ridden white liberals. An Obama-era update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Get Out supplants the disapproving and prejudiced family of the Sydney Poitiet original with a no less bigoted progressive cabal, who aggressively ingratiate themselves to the protagonist and flaunt their racial wokeness. “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” Mr. Armitage confides to his daughter’s black boyfriend, Chris, with no pretext whatsoever. “Best president in my lifetime, hands down.” Later in the film, the visiting friends of the Armitages vocally appraise the interracial couple and make such cringeworthy, overcompensating remarks as, “Black is in fashion.” Spoiler alert for anyone who turns a blind eye to the Democrat Party’s actual perception of black Americans: all this patronizing special treatment belies a misconceived ploy to lower Chris’ guard, lulling him into a false sense of value and belonging before his liberal benefactors surgically hijack his superior black body for their own gain. Get Out, whether by accident or by design, was the ultimate rebuke to our mainstream media’s insidious language of white-knighting and two-faced racial paternalism.

I don’t mean to say that leftists can’t enjoy or write highly of Jordan Peele’s films, but I do wish that they’d attempt so with some modicum of self-awareness. Notice Richard Brody’s review featured in The New Yorker, extolling the film as a “colossal cinematic achievement” and “work of directorial virtuosity” because, among other things, “Peele employs point-of-view shots to put audience members in the position of the characters, to conjure subjective and fragmentary experience that reverberates with the metaphysical eeriness of their suddenly doubled world.” In other words, sometimes (hardly enough to note) the director positions the camera to put viewers in the shoes of the hunter, for reasons of tension. Such technique is old hat for horror aficionados. Brody goes on to argue, “This world-building has a stark thematic simplicity that both belies and inspires immense complexity,” but even he has trouble abiding by his own moratorium on applying “jigsaw-fit, quasi-academic interpretation” to Us. “The results [of receiving Peele’s inner world],” he concludes, “Are intrinsically political, even revolutionary.”

The hyperbole continues with the beltway’s haste to coronate Peele a perfectionist alike to Kubrick or “this generation’s Hitchcock”, two films into a career that, if he were closely following Hitchcock’s output, would have 50 more movies to assert his mettle. Peele has more in common with a mischievous satirist and remixer like Wes Craven than with the master of suspense, and I’m not even that partial to Hitch after chowing down half his filmography. Is it responsible or just to hold Peele to a lower standard as a genre director, merely as reparations for decades of horror treating people of his pigmentation as expendable? Was Obama the best president of my lifetime, hands down?

If you take a film or gender class at university now, you may hear that Alfred Hitchcock was a Bad Person because he allegedly harassed Tippi Hedren, because he liked to cast actresses he found sexually attractive, or because Marnie is super Problematic. All that may or may not be the case, but at least Hitchcock never shoehorned ominous-sounding, yet largely tangential Bible quotes into his lowbrow shock films—full of murder, obsession, and men on the run—in order to goad gullible or self-effacing people into thinking they’re enjoying something deep and smart.

This Is Not a CW Original Show

Shazam! left such a feeble impression on my memory that I can’t guarantee the accuracy of any detail recounted here, but I’m tempted to say that it features the first on-screen depiction of a completely secular prayer. The patriarch of the central foster home reaches his palm face-down across the dinner table and instructs the others to follow suit. Everybody at the table stacks hands with the father, as if in a team huddle, and he proceeds to lead them in this act of “prayer”. “Thank you for this food, thank you for this house, thank you for this family,” he says to nobody in particular. Then they split hands and eat, the recipient of their thanks never addressed by name or consolidated with so much as an “Amen.”

Having been raised in a religious household that occasionally observed traditional Judeo-Christian prayer at the dinner table, I couldn’t understand this ritual, and the strangeness of it continues to bother me while writing this. If anybody who worked on the set of the movie, or anyone who identifies as a member of the “Spiritual” religion, can tell me what the heck was happening in these scenes, I will append the explanation to this review for the benefit of paying filmgoers likewise nagged by the question.

Why focus so much on an aspect that will fly right over most superhero fans’ heads? For me at least, the noncommittal football prayer sequences and confusion they entailed were the most fascinating takeaway from Shazam!, which is perhaps the closest that DC has gotten to making a Marvel Cinematic Universe product: visually flat, predictable, and challenged for good humor. The major comp for entertainment writers will be Penny Marshall’s Big, which Shazam! briefly and lazily references, but the new film reminds us yet again that the 1980s were a much brasher and more offensive—ergo, more interesting—time for comedy than the hamstrung, overly sensitive 21st century. Who could forget the scene in Big where the naïve boy trapped in Tom Hanks’ body ushers a woman into his apartment for “a sleepover”, on one condition: “I get to be on top!” One of the funnier scenes in Shazam! follows the main foster kids’ endeavor to grab beer from a gas station, taking advantage of hero Billy Batson’s newfound height and manly man looks. When the boys crack open a cold one outside, we get to laugh at their subverted expectations.

On the whole, though, the movie steers clear of the humorous travails of an inexperienced kid having to grapple with the responsibilities of adulthood. Billy is a superhero. Punching the bad guy harder than the bad guy punches him is about as adult as he can get. For most of its runtime, Shazam! is weightless entertainment wherein nobody with a name gets physically or emotionally hurt, and when they do, we only know because they talk about the incident afterwards. Several YouTube-based critics I watch have admonished parents over the “intensity” of scenes involving the interchangeable, bland CG ogres who are supposed to represent the seven deadly sins. Their concern rubs me as ironic, since director David F. Sandberg, a man with a background in horror, has shepherded the least horror-inflected movie in the DC canon.

Between Shazam!, Justice League, and Aquaman (which I nonetheless loved as unadulterated IMAX spectacle), Warner Bros. has neutered a franchise that used to offer an eclectic, director-sculpted alternative to Disney-Marvel, clumsily broaching real-world topics like immigration, eugenics, or the Gospel. Even the foster household angle in Shazam! feels like second pickings after Instant Family, a much funnier, edgier, more holistic, and more heartfelt precis of the system that too few people saw.

I have more issues with the movie, but most of them were already covered by Kyle Smith at National Review, so I won’t waste anybody’s time repackaging them.