#FrancisOnFilm: Shazam!

02 May 2019

Shazam! is the latest of the DC comics superhero movies, featuring foster child Billy Batson (aka Captain Marvel). Like Batman and Wonder Woman before, Shazam! is based on the exercise of transformative superpowers. Billy isn’t a very sophisticated wielder of his powers—indeed, part of the fun of the movie is watching him bumbling into figuring out the powers he has and how he might use them to bring good into the world. So it’s easy to see Shazam! as innocent and uplifting fun.


But it’s also useful to think more about what Shazam!’s audiences (who paid over $159 million worldwide its first weekend) may take away from the movie. Here are just a few possible messages:


  • That the Philadelphia of Rocky is flourishing with a skyline of gleaming new skyscrapers
  • That foster children can realistically aspire to attend CalTech
  • That parental abuse creates evil offspring
  • That children become adults when they acquire superpowers
  • That people with superpowers conform to gender stereotypes: men have muscles and women wear short skirts
  • That people acquiring superpowers conform to conventional images of beauty: crooked teeth are straightened and fat transforms into strength
  • That people with disabilities throw away their crutches when they acquire superpowers
  • That magic words can solve everything


These are bad messages about justice, I fear. Shazam! was so much fun and sweetly heart-warming that these and other potential messages for viewers nearly passed me by. I don't want to seem churlish, but I'd encourage people who see Shazam! and love it (90% on the Flixster Tomatometer and 88% of the Flixter audience when I looked) to think about these messages in the context of how theorizing about justice was deployed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice in 1971. Specifically, Rawls developed a theory of justice for ideal circumstances, not for realities of existing injustices. He didn't start by asking what justice requires here and now. And, he thought of justice as a hypothetical agreement among productively capable people about how to share the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Neither of these assumptions furthers inclusive justice for people who are worse off.


It might be sobering for Shazam! viewers to know that the more than 500,000 foster kids don’t do very well in the U.S. today. Foster children are among the poorest of children. The motivations of foster parents may vary from the rosy beneficence portrayed in Shazam! and by the American Academy of Pediatrics to far, far worse. A 2018 addition to the federal spending bill—the Family First Prevention Services Act—will limit federal funding for group homes of the kind portrayed in Shazam! When children age out of the foster care system—at age 18 in many states and age 21 in California and about twenty others—they are left to their own devices and may become homeless. Nearly half end up in jail after exiting the foster care system—so much so that leaving foster care has become known as the foster care to prison pipeline.


People with disabilities don't fare very well in the U.S., either. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, only 19.1% of people with disabilities are employed, in contrast to 65.9% of people without disabilities. High school graduation rates have improved but at about 2/3rds remain far lower than graduation rates over all. State Medicaid budgets are perennially cut and what there is of a social safety net in the US is frayed. Stigmatization of disability continues, especially people with mental illness or addictions.


In A Theory of Justice, Rawls developed an account of basic principles of justice for ideal circumstances. For Rawls, justice was the project of determining how full participants would share the benefits and burdens of social cooperation if they did not know features of themselves that would enable them to select principles that would give them an advantage. This was a project in ideal theory; Rawls set aside, for another day, what justice might require in non-ideal circumstances of structural injustice or partial compliance situations when many are not meeting their obligations of justice.


Both of these choices—that participants in theorizing about justice are capable contributors and that ideal theory is the place to start with justice—have become highly controversial philosophically. Martha Nussbaum points out how conceptualizing justice as a bargain among the capable marginalizes populations such as the disabled. Some other writers, such as Amartya Sen and Jonathan Wolff, question whether idealizations of justice make sense at all, much less as guides to what to do in less than ideal circumstances. Instead, they suggest, we should consider what policies would further inclusion in the here and now.  


The takeaways from Shazam! feed these problems in the Rawlsian approach. Only when divested of disabilities do people acquire the superpowers that can enable them to contribute to bettering the world. And instead of thinking about the lives of children in foster care, Shazam! idealizes these lives away. At least in this group home, the children lead a happy existence. What's more, when evil strikes, they acquire through one little word superpowers which enable their triumph.


All the reviews of Shazam! that I've seen regard it as a delightful feel-good movie. And so it is, on one level. But beneath the fun lies very real structural injustice in the US today that superpowers will not readily dissipate.

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, May 7, 2019 -- 11:01 AM

I usually do not comment on

I usually do not comment on the philosophical implications of film and fiction-the first, being one or the other; the second, generally being the latter. Previously, I have opined that film is a venue, the purpose of which is, primarily, entertainment. That used to be my sophomoric view (I still like watching cinema, but bear with me here). Film making is Big (with a capitol 'b') business; bigger and more extravagant than at almost any time in my youth. Insofar as my youthful assessment goes, it is flat wrong now. The primary purpose of cinema is making lots of money for those involved in the film business. I do not rely on cinematic philosophizing for advice as to how to live my life. There are many more sources to which I may refer that are more useful, rather than less so. Pragmatically, they just make more sense. Your bullet-ed take-aways are amusing. I don't know if foster children ever attend Cal Tech. I suppose, at some time, someone out of foster care may have done so---maybe even now, such a person is studying there. It would be interesting to know, But, I doubt that would be something Cal Tech would advertise. If I am wrong, that's OK. Time to think about tomato seedlings...