Say “Shazam!” It doesn’t always have the same effect.
Shazam is back with a sequel that seems to guarantee his as yet unconfirmed status in the DC Universe. Projections indicate that he will debut with between 35 and 40 million dollars, very similar to the first entry; Early reactions from critics have been positive.
“Shazam!” is the phrase that both “Shazam” and “Black Adam” share. By pronouncing it, Billy Batson and Teth-Adam acquire super powers, but while “Shazam” triumphed in 2019 with a box office of 366 million dollars from a budget of around 90 million and a 90% on the meta site Rotten Tomatoes, “Black Adam” flopped (an estimated $200+ million budget, $393 million box office, 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, plus an unfulfilled promise to launch a DC universe that won’t happen anymore; go “Black Adam” seems to have disappeared from the plans of James Gunn, the new head of the universe). The result is different due to a couple of essential details: conflict and emotion.
The essential key for any story to work is in the conflict. The main character must want or lack something and everything else must depend on helping him to get it or not. The conflict is not necessarily explicit, it may be implicit in what the character must resolve in the story. For example, in “Shazam!”, what Billy Batson wants is a family. Blly, a teenager, happens to be given great powers and by learning to use them and stop the villain, he finds an answer to his problem. That is, “Shazam!” It’s not really about a teenager with super powers and it’s not really about a superhero who behaves like a teenager. It’s about a teenager looking for his family. In the end, spoiler-free, he gets an answer; It’s not what he expected, but it’s an answer.
What is the problem with “Black Adam”? Exact! It is difficult to determine. The movie opens with a complicated prologue that explains how he got super powers and then how he got trapped. From there, the tape does not deal with clarifying what Black Adam wants. The interest is sustained because the other superheroes want to stop his wrath and then because they have to ally to stop a bigger threat, but there’s no conflict associated with character development and that’s a big problem, an essential one.
The search for family or the sense of belonging is a universal feeling. It’s something anyone can identify with. In “Shazam!” not only Billy argues about it, there is Dr. Sivana, the antagonist and there are the other homeless kids like Billy. That is, all the characters talk about the subject from different angles. In “Black Adam” that does not happen. The character is angry and that leads to sequences full of very spectacular and colorful special effects, but without emotional support. There is no real interest in knowing what will happen to the character and then, in the end, when his motives, the loss of him and the search for him are explained, it is already too late.
A good story must have a universal conflict that connects with the audience from the particularity of the protagonist and that denotes identification and, therefore, emotion. It’s what makes when you yell “Shazam!” the thunder feels the atmosphere… or not.