The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – digging deeper into the DCEU movie “Shazam.” Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!
Although I wasn’t necessarily expecting to, I really loved “Shazam.”
When I first saw the trailer, I was not impressed. The character, the concept, and the humor didn’t quite work for me. I worried that the movie would be too cheesy. Still, the trailer generated a lot of positive buzz, and I found myself wondering if maybe I was missing something.
I watched that trailer many more times as I went to the theater to watch other movies, and it slowly started to grow on me. After I saw that “Shazam” was getting really good reviews, I decided to give it a fair chance.
I’m glad that I did. “Shazam” is a surprisingly sweet, smaller-scale superhero movie with some deeper themes than I was anticipating. It didn’t find as much traction at the box office as I had hoped (perhaps it was released too close to “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: Endgame”), but this is the sort of movie that could definitely find new life on DVD/streaming services.
Touching on family, legacy, responsibility, and more, “Shazam” offers plenty of great themes to dig into — so let’s get started!
What does it means to be worthy?
The film shows us how the original wizard named Shazam spends years waiting for a worthy person to wield his powers. In the end, he settles on Billy Batson, a teenager who keeps transferring to different foster homes and whose misbehavior is hiding his painful loneliness.
Maybe I’m wrong (it’s been a while since I watched the film), but “Shazam” kinda gave me the impression that the original wizard chooses Billy more out of a sense of desperate need than a belief that “this is absolutely the perfect person in this universe to wield my powers!” Perhaps the wizard’s standards were always too high, and by rejecting previous candidates, he created his own nemesis (but more on that later).
At the moment Billy accepts the powers, he isn’t necessarily “worthy” of wielding them. But, throughout the course of the film, we get to watch him mature and “grow into” that worthiness.
It’s a beautiful metaphor we can apply to our own lives, because every one of us has faults and has made mistakes and isn’t always “worthy” of the responsibilities that have been given to us. But we don’t have to settle for the status quo; we can change our fate by choosing to work hard at becoming a better person. Our mistakes don’t doom us forever.
This discussion of worthiness also brings to mind a scene from another recent blockbuster, where Thor fears he can no longer wield Mjolnir in “Endgame” because of his failure to stop Thanos. But even after all the pain and heartbreak he has experienced, he catches the hammer and proves he is still worthy of being a hero.
If we could mash up the DCEU and the MCU, Billy might not be *quite* ready for Mjolnir yet. But in future films I think he definitely would be!
A found family
One of my favorite things about the Guardians of the Galaxy films is that they feature a “found family” — a group of people who aren’t technically related but are bound by the fact they care deeply about each other (even if they spend a lot of their time together bickering).
“Shazam” also features a found family, thanks to the generosity and compassionate spirit of Billy’s new foster parents.
All of the children in the Vazquez family’s home come from a different background, and they each have their own struggles and hurts that they are dealing with. The Vazquezes accept all the children as they are, with genuine warmth and love. It takes Billy a while to trust them, and they wait patiently for him to be ready to join the family.
For some of us, the word “family” evokes a warm, positive feeling. It brings up wonderful memories and thoughts of people we care about. For others, “family” may have a more painful connotation. Maybe your family has been more of a negative force in your life than a positive one.
Everyone deserves to feel that they are loved and that they belong, and it’s tragic when you aren’t able to experience that validation from your family.
That’s why stories like Billy’s are so powerful. A found family is absolutely still a family; you don’t have to be related by blood in order to share a sense of belonging. We all need a “family,” but the way that family is assembled is going to look different for everyone.
Also, the Vazquezes are a great example of how those of us who do have a healthy sense of family need to watch for people who may be feeling lonely or abandoned. Don’t wait for someone to ask for help; make sure your door is always open. Maybe you’re the best person to provide the sense of belonging that someone so desperately needs.
The birth of a villain
One of the other interesting things about “Shazam” is that it doesn’t begin with Billy’s origin story — it actually starts with Dr. Sivana’s.
Although waiting so long to introduce the film’s main character could have been a risk, the introductory sequence with Dr. Sivana definitely pays off, because it gives him more nuance than he might otherwise have as a character.
We meet Dr. Sivana not as a powerful supervillain, but as a lonely, bullied boy who is stuck in a toxic family situation. Shazam considers recruiting young Sivana to wield his powers but eventually rejects him, seeing the boy’s potential for darkness. In the end, this rejection pushes Sivana to become a villain.
There’s room for debate about whether Shazam was justified in rejecting Sivana, but I personally feel that Shazam was wrong. Yes, young Sivana had weaknesses; so does Billy Batson, and every other person on this planet. By focusing on the darkness instead of the potential for light, Shazam misses an opportunity to be a positive mentor to Sivana, who so desperately needs a trustworthy role model in his life.
The pull between light and darkness is, of course, a central theme in Star Wars (perhaps one day I will be able to write a blog without a Star Wars reference…but it is not this day!). One of the best twists in the whole series — Darth Vader betraying the Emperor and saving his son — was made possible because Luke refused to give up on his father and eventually made Vader see the light that was still burning inside himself.
While everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions and actions, a significant part of Vader’s fall was Emperor Palpatine’s toxic, manipulative mentorship. If the Jedi Council had been more aware of Anakin’s struggles and provided the emotional support he needed, “Darth Vader” might never have existed.
“Shazam” could have gone a little deeper in how it portrayed Sivana in the rest of the film (he doesn’t get as much nuance as Vader), but I do appreciate what we got (also, Mark Strong is amazing, as always). Billy Batson is, some ways, Shazam’s second chance; instead of rejecting another flawed, lonely boy, the wizard gives Billy an opportunity to put aside his past and become a hero.