Review Shazam (2019 movie)

The original Captain Marvel was the star of a comic published by Fawcett Comics starting in the 1940. The premise was clever: A wizard bestowed on a young boy the power to turn into a Superman-like superhero by exclaiming the magic word “Shazam,” which was also the wizard’s name. So every red-blooded boy reading Captain Marvel could imagine himself turning into a superhero.

For a while Captain Marvel was the top-selling superhero comic, even beating Superman, until DC sued the character of existence for his obvious similarities to Superman. Later Marvel comics appropriated the name Captain Marvel for an entirely different superhero, and later still DC, which ended up buying the assets of its former competitor Fawcett comics, tried reviving the original Captain Marvel only to have Marvel sue them for use of the name as a matter of trademark law, and since Fawcett had let the name lapse, Marvel’s appropriation was deemed legitimate and DC was not allowed to keep selling a comic under that name.

If I’m not mistaken, DC actually does have the right to call the character Captain Marvel on the inside pages, just not on the cover, so they started publishing the comic under the name Shazam, which led a lot of younger readers to suppose that it was the name of the superhero as well.

In the new movie the character has trouble deciding on a name and is never called Captain Marvel or Shazam that I recall. Then again, the protagonist of Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie isn’t called “Captain Marvel” either. In fact, my movie ticket called the movie Captain Marv. I’m still going to call the hero of Shazam! Captain Marvel for purposes of this review.

As in the original comic, this Captain Marvel’s powers are magically bestowed on a 14-year-old boy named Billy Batson by an ancient wizard who is looking for a champion but isn’t wearing his glasses. Exclaiming the wizard’s name lets Billy turn into an adult superhero with the characteristic strengths of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury if I remember right. (Anyway, one Jewish guy and five Greeks, with the first letters spelling “Shazam.”)

I confess I got my hopes up about this film based on the trailer until during the opening credits I realized that it’s was a DC movie, at which point I became apprehensive. But to my amazement, it’s actually good. I liked it even more than the Marvel Captain Marvel, though I admit that the star of the other film is better looking.

As I said, the original premise of the Captain Marvel character strikes me as clever, but as far as I know, until this film nobody took it to the logical conclusion of letting Captain Marvel retain Billy Batson’s 14-year-old mind and personality in the body of an adult superhero. One might object that this is inconsistent with magic word’s supposedly bestowing upon him the wisdom of Solomon, but let me remind you that Solomon reportedly had 700 wives and 300 porcupines, and who but a 14-year-old boy would think that was a good idea?

Anyway,  as soon as he gets his mind around the fact that he can turn himself into a grown man with superpowers, Billy sets about doing what a 14-year-old boy would do with that ability: buy beer and junk food, figure out ways to get money to buy more fun stuff, and hit on girls in their late teens and early 20s. He even manages to succeed at the first two. When the bad guy asks him how old he is, Billy lies and says he’s “basically fifteen.”

His immaturity is initially his biggest problem, but then he encounter a bigger one, the evil supervillain Dr Sivana, who unlike the mad scientist character in the comics has powers very close to Captain Marvel’s own, as a consequence of being inhabited by the Seven Deadly Sins.

Said Sins had been imprisoned by the wizard Shazam until Dr Sivana came along and freed them, but aside from giving Dr Sivana superpowers, it’s hard to see what practical difference it makes whether the Sins are locked up or not. Even while they were still captive there wasn’t a noticeable lack of sinning anywhere, nor did their incarceration prevent their combined physical manifestation from becoming president of the United States.

Incidentally, some have pointed out that putting a boy’s personality into an adult body has been done before, with the most commonly cited example being the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks. The makers of this movie saw that observation coming, and they inserted a nice reference to Big in the film.

But of course variations on the idea have appeared before, often in the form of an adult and a child swapping bodies. And given the basic idea that Billy Batson turns into Captain Marvel, having him still be Billy Batson on the inside is just carrying the basic premise to its logical conclusion.

Shazam! has a pretty satisfying climax one in keeping with the spirit of the original Captain Marvel comic. I really enjoyed it.


By the way, a friend of mine reminded me that back in its early days, when it was still a comic book, Mad Magazine published a spoof by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood poking fun at Superman, Captain Marvel, and in passing the DC-Fawcett lawsuit. In Mad's version, Captain Marbles' magic word is Shazoom!, standing for Strength -- Health -- Aptitude -- Zeal -- Ox, Power Of -- Ox, Power Of Another -- Money. If you do an image search in Google for "Superduperman" you can find it on line. The parody proved so popular that it gave Mad a major sales boost.

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No, Social Security isn't going to run out of money

At the start of last week the latest report from the Social Security Trustees (link) was released, leading to predictable but misleading warnings that the system was going to "run dry." For example, the headline on this article from the website of Boston's WBUR public radio declares: "Unless Congress Acts, Social Security Will Run Out Of Money By 2035, Government Report Says."

The first sentence under the headline seemingly confirms it: "According to an annual report from the government this week, Social Security will run out of money by 2035." But then the second sentence reads, "It's a worrisome reminder for soon-to-be retirees, who, unless Congress acts, will receive just three-quarters of their scheduled benefits."

Most people are likely to find this confusing, and they're right. Here's the straight story:

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system. That is, the benefits paid out this year are paid for mainly by Social Security taxes coming in this year. This is how the system is supposed to work, how it has always worked, and how it was originally advertised as working. Many people mistakenly think it's a sort of enforced saving program, but if it had been set up that way it would have been decades before anybody received any significant benefits.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that the taxes collected would happen to exactly match the benefits being paid out, so the Social Security retirement system has a trust fund that operates like a reservoir in a water system. taxes flow into the trust fund and are paid out from the trust fund, and if the taxes coming in exceed the benefits being paid out, the trust fund grows to build of a reserve to cover a future shortfall.

When people talk about Social Security "running out of money," what they actually mean is that the reserve is projected to be depleted in about 2035 (give or take), at which point benefits would have to be cut to just the amount Social Security taxes would be able to cover with the taxes coming in, which the same report estimates would be about 77 percent of scheduled benefits.

This might sound a little worse than it is, in that future average benefits are supposed to be higher than benefits being paid out today, even after adjusting for inflation. That's because Social Security benefits are based on wages, and over time wages tend to grow at least a little faster than inflation. For the same reason, today's average benefits are likewise larger than they were in the past. So 77% of future average benefits will be more than 77% of current average benefits and more than 100% of average benefits being paid out at some point in the past. (No, I haven't looked up exactly when that was.)

Now, this doesn't mean that the reduction is nothing to be concerned about. Quite the contrary. If this scenario is allowed to play out, then people drawing Social Security would take a sudden big hit to their spending power, and that would hurt not just them but the businesses that depend on them and ultimately the whole economy. So definitely Congress ought to do something. I'm just pointing that even if they don't (which, alas, lately seems a safe bet), it's not like Social Security would literally run dry.

(Incidentally, there are actually two trust funds, one for retirement benefits and the other for disability benefits. The latter fund is in better shape, mainly because of a decline in disability claims.)

There are various ways of fixing the system so benefits don't suddenly drive off a cliff. Benefit growth could be reduced or tax collections increased (for example by doing away with the current cap on what high-income people pay in Social Security taxes) or some combination of the two.

You might not have heard about it yet, but there is a concrete proposal on the table right now to address the problems far into the future and in a number of ways improve the system. It's proposed by Representative John Larson (D-Connecticut) and colleagues in the House of Representatives. There's a clear summary here with a link to the actual text of the bill if you want all the details.

Confusion about Social Security is nothing new, of course. Here, for example, is a more or less similar post I wrote back in 2012. A lot of myths turn out to arise from misconceptions about the meaning of life expectancy, leading for example to confused pronouncements on the topic from former Texas governor, former presidential candidate, and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry (see this post) and from former Senator Alan Simpson (see this one). Senator Simpson in particular ought to have known better, since he had just co-chaired the National Debt Commission with Erskine Bowles.

Possibly the best succinct explanation of life expectancy was a four-minute video from Hank Green I previously highlighted in a 2017 post here.

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How pharmaceutical companies take advantage of people with diabetes

When Banting and colleagues discovered insulin and saved countless lives they refused to profit from it. Their successors are making millions from Americans. The price used to be low, and it's still low elsewhere, but pharmaceutical companies have jacked up prices by an incredible amount in recent years, as has happened with a lot of other things lately. For patients it's literally a case of your money or your life.



For a very brief history of how insulin was discovered (and a sea shanty about it), see this earlier post. It was mainly the work of four people, two of whom were awarded the Nobel Prize and who then shared the award with the other two.

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The recently arrested compete for most nuts

It took me a while to figure out it was Michael Keaton:


By the way, I've been griping that the news media haven't answered the most important question about Julian Assange's arrest, namely, what happened to his cat? The Washington Post is ahead of everyone else on this it turns out, with an article headlined (and I'm not making this up):

The mystery of Julian Assange’s cat: Where will it go? What does it know?

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Don Cheadle recalls trying not to be recognized in London with several other members of the Avengers cast

On Late Night with Seth Meyers (back in February), Don Cheadle recalls the night he, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, et al decided to walk a few blocks in packed London streets despite an expectation of being mobbed. It didn't quite work out as they expected. As a bonus, Cheadle recalls how he came to meet Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during the George W Bush administration.


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How rounding numbers affects the law and politics

British mathematician, humorist, and author Matt Parker (whose YouTube channel is "standupmaths") describes how rounding can have unexpected effects, even on how the Trump administration tried to get around a provision in the Affordable Care Act to please insurance industry lobbyists:


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