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Leaning On Each Other: Shazam!

Like a lightning bolt altering young Billy Batson into the formidable hero, DC’s latest entry in their extended cinematic universe is all about transformation. Not only the transformation of our hero, but everyone around him as well. Billy’s origin story is not unlike most populating the DCEU. Childhood tragedy gives way to opportunity for our young protagonist to be imbued with strength, flight, and a litany of other capabilities. These ultimately leave him alone and unsure of his destiny, yet he accepts his newfound responsibilities and saves the day. But there is something special about Shazam! that, unlike other entries in the DCEU, leaves us smiling and full of joy. Perhaps it’s because the focus of Shazam! isn’t really our hero at all.

In a world populated with heroes saving the universe from cataclysmic disasters, earth ending mega weapons, and city destroying monsters, Shazam! deconstructs the heart.

One thing the DCEU has done extremely well is place high importance on the family and relationships surrounding their heroes. Superman tries to balance family and love while engaging with a world that doesn’t trust or understand him. Batman forces everyone away, refusing to see the good in a world that has broken every promise it’s ever made. Wonder Woman, horrified by what man is capable of, leaves them to their own destructive devices, and becomes a recluse. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman: each film shines a spotlight on family—particularly the parents. Our heroes are emboldened by the rich relationships they have with their mothers and fathers (or in Batman’s case, the absence of them). But in order to embrace their role in the world , those relationships are strained. Each of our heroes are haunted by relationships and allies that are too fragile to exist in their worlds. And this is where Shazam! breaks from the traditional DCEU formula and becomes something more.

As an orphan, Billy Batson is a rogue, determined to find his birth mother. Lost from her grip in a crowd at a young age, Billy uses his street-smarts to follow clues leading him to his mother, hopeful that reuniting with her will bring his life purpose and meaning.When brought into a home of well meaning foster parents and several foster siblings, Billy pushes back against the system, refusing to establish any kind of meaningful relationships with them. In a twist of fate, Billy is championed by a wizard for being “pure of heart,” and is given powers beyond imagination. For the rest of the film Billy learns to lean into his new relationships rather than pushing them away. Instead of being tasked with saving the day, Billy shares his newfound power with his family and together they stop the impending doom to their city and the world.

This is where Shazam! truly shines. Rather than watching a solo hero save the day and gain accolades from the city, Billy’s entire family, a rather misfit crew, is given the opportunity to come together and be something special. A theme straight from the monthly comics written by the talented Geoff Johns. It is a bright spot in the DCEU, especially given it’s history of dark storylines, brooding characters, and convoluted story threads. Shazam! focuses on a much more singular storyline about trust, love, and encouragement.

Even the villain of the film, Dr. Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins, speak more to us as individuals than as a society. Gone is the usual social commentary about mankind as a whole, instead focusing on the things we all struggle with as individuals. Greed, Lust, Envy, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Sloth—all villains in the film are things we recognize in our own hearts. These Sins are personified in some of our characters, whether overtly or subtly, even in our heroes. Freddie Freeman, Billy’s foster brother struggles with envy, desperately desiring the powers Billy has been given. Billy struggles with pride, balancing his new powers with his fanbase. The struggles of each character is real and relatable.

In a world populated with heroes saving the universe from cataclysmic disasters, earth ending mega weapons, and city destroying monsters, Shazam! deconstructs the heart. We are not witnessing the rise of the perfect hero who overcomes all odds to save mankind. We are seeing a family come together and trust one another. We see a hero put aside his selfishness, self-reliance, and arrogance to lift up those around him and make them heroes. We see what true leadership looks like. Shazam! may be lighthearted, silly and fun, but deep down it is so much more. It’s a film about family and the importance they play in our daily lives—not just when the world needs heroes.

Drew is a native of Cincinnati Ohio, avid comic book reader and gifted in sarcasm. You can find him on the Gotham Central podcast, and on twitter at @gotham_central and @DrewsAskew

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