David F. Sandberg’s new film Shazam! wears many different hats. It’s a superhero origin story, a coming of age comedy, a fantasy-adventure with horror undertones, and a Christmas movie. Throughout its (too long) 135-minute runtime, it manages to successfully be all of these things. What causes Shazam! to really soar however, is the emphasis it places on family above all else. The film may feature wizards, demons, superheroes and their villainous counterparts, but that’s all just window dressing. It’s the search and eventual finding of your own family that really makes Shazam! fly.
The film opens up on a different origin story than Billy Batson/Shazam (Asher Agnel/Zachary Levi). We start with the film’s villain, a young Thaddeus Sivana, age 11, riding in the back seat with his father driving and his older brother riding up front in the passenger seat. Both dad and big brother are taunting poor Thaddeus, telling him essentially that he’s too weak and stupid to ever amount to anything. Young Thad’s Magic 8 Ball shows some weird symbols just before Thad finds himself magically transported into The Rock of Eternity, a cave occupied by an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The aging wizard has brought Thaddeus to the Rock of Eternity to see if he is pure of heart so he can take up the mantle of the wizard, gain all his powers, and keep the world safe from The Seven Deadly Sins. (the Sins are actual monsters that are imprisoned as long as Shazam is alive to guard them.)
To receive this great power and responsibility, all young Thaddeus has to do is pass the wizard’s purity of heart test. This is the only way the wizard can be satisfied in knowing that the boy will not be seduced by any of the Sins. Of course, young Thaddeus is immediately seduced by the powers that the demons offer, and the wizard magically transports him back to the back seat where he inadvertently causes his father to crash the car, paralyzing him and being told by his older brother the wreck was all his fault. These are the moments that birth a hero, or in this case, a villain.
It’s really a flipside to Billy Batson/Shazam’s origin story. They are both, however, entirely about family. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) could have been Billy Batson, and vice versa. They were both thrown to the wolves by their families in different ways at a young age. They were both brought to the Rock of Eternity by the wizard to test their merit. They both become superhuman. The differences often come down to how the events affected each person. There’s an actual case to be made that the original wizard Shazam creates the villain Doctor Sivana by re-enforcing the idea that he was simply “no good”. It was the same idea his asshole father and brother kept feeding him as a boy.
Thaddeus Sivana came from wealth, however, and was ostracized from his family in a manner that allowed him to grow cold, bitter, detached and obsessed. Combine those growing emotions with the seething resentment towards an old wizard that interrupted his life just to tell him how un pure his poor heart actually was, throw in said family wealth/privilege and you have a recipe for disaster. Billy Batson, on the flip side, did not come from any wealth to tie him to a birth family that didn’t want him. No, his 17 year old mother just abandoned him after he got lost at a carnival, leaving him with the police to be placed in foster care. This happened when Billy was very small child and he spends the rest of his childhood feeling abandoned and unwanted, constantly breaking out of every foster home and searching for the mother that never wanted him.
Things change for Billy though where they never changed for Thaddeus, and that makes all the difference in the world. Billy Batson is taken in by Victor and Rosa Vasquez’ foster family that shows Batson love, patience, and a sense of belonging. It isn’t something he even accepts or realizes that he wants at first. The Vasquez family is already crowded with five other foster kids, and in Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) Billy finds a brother and a best friend. In direct comparison, there’s a pretty scary scene full of monsters running amok at Thaddeus Industries, wherein the outcast Dr. Sivana throws his older brother out a skyscraper window before instructing one of his monsters, the sin Greed, to eat his own wheelchair-bound father. Yikes! Can’t wait to spend Thanksgiving at the Sivana house this year.
The aging wizard brings Billy Batson to the Rock of Eternity, just like he did to Thaddeus 35 years ago, and gives him the same purity test. Billy passes and is reborn as “The Champion of Eternity.” The power transforms Billy from a 14-year-old kid to his “fullest potential” (which looks a lot like Zachary Levi) and bestows upon him the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the powers of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. The only problem is despite looking like a fully-grown adult man, Billy aka “The Champion of Eternity” is still a 14-year-old kid who has been through a helluva lot.
So, what does a 14-year-old self-obsessed teenager (all teens are self-obsessed, sorry) do with all of these ridiculously enormous powers? Well, obviously hit on adult women, sneak into strip clubs, trick store clerks into selling him and Freddy beer (tastes like vomit), get revenge on the bullies at school that picked on Freddy, etc. The real problem comes when Billy crosses a line, making me wonder just how exactly he was the purest hearted person, that much more so than poor young Thaddeus? Freddy, who is so obsessed with superheroes (he owns a bullet pulled from Superman’s body, the batarang, at least two Aquaman tee shirts, and several news clippings of Batman and Superman sightings), starts to notice that Billy as Shazam can be kind of a dick. It’s no surprise to us, the adult audience. But Freddy needs superheroes in his life. Freddy has a disability and Batman, Superman and the rest of the big DC heroes have obviously inspired him and carried him through his own trials growing up as an orphan who is also cast aside by others as weak.
That is precisely why Freddy is so pissed off when Billy starts to cause way more harm than good with his powers. Instead of figuring out his powers and what he can do with them the way Freddy wants, Billy reacts by making strangers pay for selfies and shooting lightning out of his fingers to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger” on the actual Rocky steps…for tips. He’s arrogant, brash, rude, and self-serving to the point of almost killing a busload of people by recklessly zapping his lightning powers around for kicks. Of course, no one realizes he caused it, so Shazam rushes to the rescue, saving the bus from sure catastrophic fatality. But Freddy saw the whole thing and calls Billy out, who at this point (and arguably the whole film) is way more mature than when he transforms into his superhero adult alter ego.
Their relationship grounds the film in a world we can at least recognize, and so do all of Billy/Shazam’s trials, errors, and screwups along the way. Being pure doesn’t mean being perfect. No one is ever perfect. But Billy doesn’t come to this realization on his own. He comes to it through his friendship with his new best friend and eventual brother Freddy. He comes to the realization that family, as I have said before, is not always the one that’s based on your biology. Family is a group of people who live, love, and die for each other. Doctor Sivana is a villain, but he is a villain that was made by the coldness of his family, who always put wealth before love. His father, who always treated him as weak. His brother, always berating and reminding him that he was nothing. Then, the ultimate snuffing: the ancient wizard brings him to the brink of unknowable power only to reinforce the ideas espoused by the people who always hurt him the most–his own family.
Shazam! is a tale of two orphans: one saved and the other damned. We can’t control the shit that happens to us in this world. Sometimes, we can only deal with it with what tools we have inside us….and we aren’t always equipped. Orphans and emotionally abandoned/ostracized children are not in any way equipped, not even close. Yes, we all have choices to make and must answer to those choice but that doesn’t mean everyone got a fair and level turn at the game. Neither Billy Batson or Thaddeus Siva got a fair chance ever, and their actual biological families failed them at every step of the way.
Thaddeus grew up to become a wealthy doctor, but could never quench the thirst for power that began the night he failed the wizard’s test in The Cave of Eternity until he eventually became a superhuman villain known as Doctor Sivana, powered and controlled by the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins themselves. Billy Batson grew up and was left to fend for himself in state’s care by his own mother when he was a small boy. After years of isolation and chasing a woman who didn’t even want him, he is placed in a perfect foster family who showered him with love, gave him a home, siblings/friends, parents…all of the things Billy needed to begin to figure out who they truly are. Shazam could have easily turned out villainous and Shiva could have easily turned out a successful doctor and nothing more. It’s the presence and power of belonging to a family that made all the difference, and that’s the power of Shazam!