I Wanna Talk About Shazam!

I Wanna Talk About Shazam!

It didn’t click until about ten or so minutes into the movie that I was gonna have Feelings about Shazam! In retrospect, it’s kind of obvious. A found family story about an adopted (foster) kid (who has other adoptee siblings!) who’s still laser-focused on finding his birth mom from his early childhood? All wrapped up in an energetic, fun superhero movie? Maybe it’s not particularly groundbreaking, but sometimes it’s just nice to have the adoptee-equivalent of comfort food.

Note: I use “Shazam” to refer to Billy’s superpowers and everything incorporated within that. Billy is referred to as Billy and the wizard is referred to as the wizard.

Spoiler warning for all of Shazam!

To summarize, Shazam! is about Billy Batson, a fourteen year old foster kid intent on finding his birth mother after she disappeared ten years ago. While adjusting a new group home full of other fellow foster kids, he’s granted superpowers by a mysterious wizard who’s been looking for someone to pass his magic onto. These powers are activated by saying the wizard’s name, Shazam, and come in the form of a new, grownup body with various abilities. Billy now sports two identities: his mundane, teenage life and his cool, adult-shaped superpowered life that allows him to bond with Freddy, one of his new siblings as well as a huge fan of the in-universe superheroes like Aquaman and Batman.

The primary hook of Shazam! Is how charming it is. In contrast to the usual image of DCEU movies as cool and brooding, Shazam! is bouncy and energetic for the most part. Even with his sad past, Billy finds fun in playing around with his powers, seeing what he can do and get away with. This is combined with some fantastic sibling bonding between him and Freddy, with Billy as an emerging superhero and Freddy as his coach/publicist/confidante. It’s joyfully innocent and sincere. This foundation of humor and happiness strengthen the drama, as Billy figures out both his responsibility as a superhero and what family means to him as a foster kid/adoptee.

When you think about it, adoptee characters suit stories like Shazam! quite nicely. Superhero plots often center themes of identity, isolation from wider society, as well as the balancing act of personal desires versus others’ expectations when both are legitimate and valid. Meanwhile, adoptee stories address these same ideas through the lens of family. (Superman is probably the most iconic combination.) Billy’s arc in particular draws a direct connection between validation of his adoptive bonds and literal superhuman abilities. This stands in contrast to other notable superhero movies about family and inheritance through bloodlines (Thor, Black Panther, Aquaman).

Why Would You Tell a Kid That

The otherwise fairly boring antagonist, Doctor Sivana acts a decent enough foil to Billy. His defining characteristic beyond plain, unrelenting power hunger lie with his familial trauma. Shazam’s opening prologue set during his childhood makes it clear that he was the family black sheep and punching bag. Sivana is offered the powers of Shazam by the wizard but he succumbs easily to a different offer from the trapped, demonic Seven Deadly Sins, which prey on his deepest insecurities. However, the wizard reveals it was a test of temptation which Sivana has failed. Then while begging for a second chance, he inadvertently causes a car crash that paralyzes his father, further ostracizing him. As an adult, he focuses on getting revenge against his family and the wizard. Once he finds a way back, he releases the Seven Deadly Sins and becomes their vessel, gaining their powers.

Thematically, his arc is about how someone’s birth family can fail them (in contrast to Billy’s foster family) and deeply warp their development as a person. However, because the rest of his personality is so blandly evil, it comes off as marking someone as irredeemable for making (quite reasonable) mistakes in childhood because of a toxic environment. When Sivana fails to resist the Seven Deadly Sins as a child, the wizard declares the boy unworthy and impure of heart, which is pretty harsh for, again, a child. While a preventative test against abuse of superpowers makes sense, assigning that much morality to a still developing kid doesn’t sit quite right. Plus, since Billy’s only granted his superpowers as essentially a last resort because the wizard was near death decades later, it would’ve been more honest to acknowledge their respective luck rather than frame their conflict as an inherently moral one.

A Mother but Not a Mom

Another layer of deconstruction of blood relations can be found with Marilyn, Billy’s birth mother. In his memory, she’s an angelic mother who mysteriously disappeared for no reason. Besides flexing and learning his newfound powers, most of Billy’s energy is focused towards finding her again. Later on though, upon finding her, Marilyn is revealed to have been a single, teenage mother who purposefully left Billy behind after losing him in a crowd, feeling overwhelmed by parenthood. She’s a flawed person who made a hurtful choice under stress and seemingly limited choices. Billy’s memory of his birth mother as the perfect parent is shattered. By the end of the scene, there’s a settled mixture of anger and pity directed at her, as Billy hands over the compass toy from early childhood that he had held onto while trying to find her.

While neither malicious nor sadistic like Sivana’s family, there’s an implication that if Marilyn had kept Billy, he would similarly be failed by her. The interactions between the two are less loving and more awkward. While she’s glad to see him doing okay, there’s clearly no desire to welcome him back into her life. In the present, she’s clearly still stuck and struggling in some ways: living in a seedy apartment, cohabitating with an unseen man who yells at her, about to head off to some likely low-paying shift work.

It’s complex territory to navigate, as many portrayals of birth parents range widely from incapable lowlives or virtuous martyrs, with the same intent of supporting the adoptive family’s legitimacy by flattening birth parents’ humanity (and usually with a heavy layer of misogyny). Within Shazam!’s intended scope, focused on Billy’s perspective as a foster kid, I think Shazam! threads a delicate needle mostly well. Marilyn is left in her life of half-desperate unhappiness, unknown whether she’ll find her own way or not, which initially left me uncomfortable. There’s a shadow of systemic critique, the way our society fails teenage and single parents, that she needed more support than what was available, but it’s only that: a shadow. However, Billy’s in no position to be of any real help, emotionally or materially, as a child and her child in particular. In line with the themes of Shazam, and most superhero movies, only she can redirect her own life (again, the compass toy).

The Power of Love (and Ableism)

The final, climactic fight of the movie ties everything together. When Sivana takes Billy’s siblings hostage, they’re used as bait and an indicator of weakness. Billy nearly opts to transfer his powers in exchange for his family’s safety. However, he remembers something the wizard spoke of: from a glorious past, thrones occupied by brothers and sisters. That’s when Billy decides to share the name Shazam and his abilities with his siblings. They all transform into similarly adult, superpowered versions of themselves like Billy’s alter ego. It’s a wonderful twist, one that the trailers thankfully left unspoiled. It’s a true expression of love from Billy, as he embraces them as his real family, which stands in harsh contrast to Sivana’s isolation and single-minded quest for lone, brute power. It also makes for some very fun combat scenes.

However, there’s something…off about about everyone’s transformations. Pedro turns from fat to being just as buff and sculpted as Billy’s Shazam form. Freddy’s transformation comes with a shot of his crutch falling to the ground. While he never walks while in superhero form (only flies), the implication is heavy: he’s not disabled when using Shazam’s powers. Across the board, the siblings’ new appearances are split into a binary of homogenous silhouettes: the boys are all almost comically brawny and chiseled, while the girls all strike a conventionally attractive balance between slim and muscled. The wizard had told Billy that these powers would transform people into a manifestation of their “fullest potential.” In that light, these new forms are not only what we imagine traditional superheroes to look like, but ideal images of humanity itself, including corrective measures for fat and disabled people.

I especially want to like Freddy’s moment more. In a previous argument with Billy, he confesses that he wishes he had Shazam’s abilities, not only because of his own love of superheroes, but also because he envies the kind of admiration and attention Shazam gets. It’s a mixture of the ableism Freddy faces and of a relatable desire to stand out and be loved for it. For him to have that wish granted, because of his brother and best friend (alongside the rest of his family), is a sweet kind of wish fulfillment. So it’s a shame that it’s dampened by glaring ableism. (And that’s not even digging into another casting of an able bodied actor as a disabled character.)

In the end though, Shazam! really is nice. For all of its flaws or its existence as yet another standard tie-in to yet another blockbuster cinematic universe, it’s still sincerely funny and warm. Sometimes entertainment being truly entertaining is a real feat to experience. It’s just icing on the cake if it feels at least partly for people like me.

I now have a Ko-fi! If you like my writing, it’d be nice to throw me a few bucks.

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