The biggest mistake mediocre movies make is when they constantly throw conflict at the hero but all that conflict focuses on physical challenges. Ideally, the best conflict comes from inside where the hero is forced to confront him or herself.
Outer conflict is what you see in bad James Bond movies where an army of villains try to kill James Bond and he easily dispatches them one at a time usually through a variety of dazzling special effects and stunts. While visually interesting, outer, physical conflict ultimately feels empty and meaningless.
Inner conflict occurs when the hero is torn between making choices. In “Shazam,” the hero is a loner and pushes away his foster family. When he saves his foster sister from getting hit by a truck, he argues with her.
She’s been accepted to college but is hesitant to go because that means she’ll have to leave her foster family. The hero urges her to “look out for number one” and think only of herself. Although this conflict lacks the visual spectacle of a bad James Bond movie, it’s far more interesting because it shows the hero’s conflict within himself.
He’s trying to convince others to be selfish and self-centered while others are trying to convince him to be less selfish and think about being part of a larger group.
Not surprisingly, “Shazam” carries this inner conflict throughout the story, especially at the end where the hero realizes he can share his super power with his foster brothers and sisters so they can help him defeat the multiple demons of the villain. This helps the hero realize he can’t work alone all the time but needs the help of others.
Conflict stems from the theme where the conflict challenges the hero to choose between embracing the theme (be part of a family in “Shazam”) or stay isolated and work alone.
Think of any bad movie from “Mortal Engines” to “The Spy Who Dumped Me” and you’ll notice a distinct lack of a theme. Without a theme, conflict relies simply on visual effects and that creates a boring conflict, which creates a boring story.
Unified movies like “Shazam” stay focused on its theme. Bad movies lack a theme altogether or fail to tie its conflict with its theme.
Theme is the foundation of story telling. Ignore it and you might as well try building a house on quicksand.