Friday, May 17, 2019

Character Arcs and Themes in SHAZAM!

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast features our analysis of Shazam!, directed by David Sandberg.

  • Character development in Shazam!
  • Thad Sivana (1:00) 
  • Billy Batson (7:48)
  • Freddy Freeman (12:10)
  • Secondary characters (21:03)
  • Themes (29:50)
  • Heart (30:16)
  • Family and Home (34:39)
  • Power and Adulthood (39:25)
  • Doubts and Support from others (44:57)
  • Closing comments (48:56)
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<Transcript below>

Welcome, fans of Shazam! My name is Sam. This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast features our analysis of Shazam!, directed by David Sandberg and written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke.

As is our style, we try to go beyond giving general reactions or running through lists of things we liked and didn’t like -- our JLU Podcast team enjoys tracing character arcs and thinking about overarching themes that films address. Speaking of the JLU Podcast team, that includes myself as well as Alessandro Maniscalco, Rebecca Johnson, Sydney, and Nick Begovich. You can also hear us analyzing other DC Films. We’ve gone scene-by-scene through BvS, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman, and we are currently making our way through Justice League and Aquaman. And over on our patreon page, we are also analyzing Man of Steel.

But right now, let’s talk about Shazam!. We are going to share our thoughts on the characters and some of the themes that we identified. And although Shazam is the title character, we are actually going to start where the movie starts… with young Thaddeus Sivana.

Thad / Doctor Sivana

It is fairly common for superhero movies and other action movies with a clear “bad guy” to open the movie with some sort of setup of the threat or with an introduction of this bad guy. If you have an ongoing series with the same good guy, then it’s really the bad guy who changes from film to film and so Scene 1 can set the stage by presenting the bad guy. Shazam! follows this trend, but they made a fairly bold creative decision that we very much respect --- they didn’t just introduce the bad guy in Scene 1, they presented Thad Sivana in a very sympathetic light. They actually used the opening of the movie, one of the most important parts of any film, not to get us to hate or fear the villain but to really empathize with him and stick up for him against his bullying family. This is bold because the filmmakers have now set up a challenge for themselves to get the audience to turn these feelings around and later root against Sivana. I think they accomplish that feat, which is a big reason why the film works overall.

With regard to the sympathy for young Thaddeus, of course the most obvious way in which this happens is through his mistreatment at the hands of his father and older brother. They are just straight-up rude to Thad and, from their positions of seniority and physical power, they look down on him in a cruel way as the younger, slightly odd brother. Another sympathetic moment is when Thad is unfairly blamed for the car accident. It’s the driver’s responsibility to operate the vehicle safely, regardless of noises or distractions. And furthermore, Thad had no intention of causing the accident, so it is unfair and we can feel bad for him when his brother immediately blames him for what happens to Daddy Sivana.

We can have further sympathy for Thad also because of the wizard. When Thad is summoned to the rock of eternity, it’s a chance to gain power and maybe stand up to bullies, but the wizard rejects Thad. Sure, Thad failed the temptation test, but the wizard rejects him pretty sternly and it’s a bit unfair that Thad failed a test when he didn’t even really realize it was a test, and it’s sad that Thad doesn’t get a second chance or any sort of mentorship to succeed. At that point, we can see that no one is really giving him a chance or supporting him in a positive way. This will be contrasted later on with the hero of the story, who is given a chance by various foster families and given multiple chances by the Vasquez family. In fact, the Vasquezes at one point even say that their responsibility is to take him back, especially after he messes up. The wizard also gives Billy a chance, precisely the opposite of Thad.

We’ll talk later about how one possible theme of the film is that people, especially young people, will either rise or lower themselves to the expectations that you have for them. They might do great things, but you have to give them a chance and believe in them. Without a chance, or without support, it can all turn out quite badly. One might say that the wizard was absolutely right not to give his powers to Thad, because Thad was angry and might’ve used them to lash out against his father and older brother. Or one might say that Thad didn’t deserve the powers because his heart wasn’t pure, as we saw later on with all the cruel and violent things that Sivana did. But a counterargument to that is it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the wizard rejected Thad, which in turn led to the car accident, those events may have been what pushed him into his cruelty and villainy. Perhaps he didn’t have to turn out that way.

But he did turn out to be a villain. This was very clear later on with how he treated his research associate, the folks in the boardroom -- especially his brother and father, and his embrace of the seven deadly sins. The film did a good job of making his motivations very clear. He saw that early glimpse of magic, and so his driving force is to get his hands on the magical powers -- he is all consumed by the idea that magic is the great power, and he doesn’t just want power for power’s sake but he very specifically wants to gain that power to show up his father and brother. It was also a nice touch to emphasize the sin of greed with regard to his father, but then later to have the sin of envy be the one staying closest to Doctor Sivana himself -- one could interpret Sivana as envious of his brother and his father, and also envious that Billy was chosen as champion instead of himself.

Eventually, Sivana does triumph over his brother and father, but he is not at all satisfied by this. He is going down a dark path at that point and his pursuit of power won’t be curtailed. He then shifts his attention to defeating the wizard’s champion, who may be more powerful than him, just as he had to dispatch his brother and father, who always lorded over him.

Speaking of the wizard’s champion, one of the things we really liked about Sivana as a villain in this movie is that he paralleled the hero in several interesting ways. First of all, we got to see flashback scenes for both Thad and Billy as children. And there was a similarity here in that both kids had troubled childhoods and some less-than-stellar parents. Both of them were yearning for a positive family connection in some sense, and a contrast is that Billy eventually found one, whereas Thad did not… unless you want to count the seven deadly sins as his family, but really they were just using him to escape their captivity and wreak havoc on the world. Although on some level, you could say they were similar in that they both chose their eventual families. They also both had a connection to someone with a physical disability -- in Thad’s case, his father was in a wheelchair, and for Billy, his friend and manager walked with crutches.

Another similarity that we really liked was that both characters were given a children’s toy as a recurring motif. For Thad, right from the start, it was the magic 8 ball --- the connection to magic is a nice touch, and it represents the idea of calling to the fates for information about your future. For Billy, the toy was a directional compass. Both the 8 ball and the compass suggest the characters holding onto and still grappling with their past and their troubled youth -- Thad clinging to some anger, and Billy clinging to some hope. Physically, they both also involve a sort of floating and rotating centerpiece, but a key difference is that while the 8 ball gives you answers, the compass merely points a direction and orients you… it’s still up to you to navigate and make decisions based on that information.

So these parallels and more made it interesting to watch Sivana and Batson play out as villain and hero. But there was also the key difference that we mentioned and will talk about again later, which is that Billy was nurtured and given second chances, whereas Sivana was decidedly not.

Billy Batson / Shazam

But let’s move that way and talk about the main character, Billy Batson. Just as Sivana, the villain, was introduced in a sympathetic light, Billy was actually introduced with a scene where he’s kind of an arrogant kid being a jerk to the police officers. Thankfully, he’s not doing it maliciously and we see that he has a driving and understandable motivation to find his biological mother, but he’s a bit mean at first, though we can tell that it’s probably a protective cover because of the pain that he’s dealt with at being abandoned by his mom.

Underneath that tough exterior, we learn that there is a pure heart. This pure heart that the wizard talks about is admittedly hard to see at first. But that’s not because it wasn’t there --- it’s just that circumstances had clouded it. The wizard saw through that, to the deeper truth. And the foster family seems to see through it, too, to Billy’s better core. For the audience, the most obvious hint of his good heart is when he sticks up for Freddy against the bullies. (And by the way, this makes me wonder how young Thad might have turned out if he had a friend like Billy when he was getting bullied.) The bully incident is directly before Billy meeting the wizard, so it is reinforced as an indication of good heart. But even before that, Billy’s prank with the police and their banter about the lunch, together with him looking for his mom, gave a hint that he wasn’t really a bad kid. He also has a moment at school where he brushes aside Darla’s hugs, which seems like a mean thing to do, but he immediately feels bad about it and says that he didn’t intend to hurt her feelings. This gives us another glimpse that underneath he has a good heart. That is probably enough of a basis on which to build a hero, if you put it together with the wizard actually giving him a chance and believing in him, and then a family who supports him.

With regard to Billy’s motivation, we’ve already mentioned his search for his biological mother. This is his main driving force for most of the movie, but really what’s even more fundamental is that he is looking for a family. In most cases, family and biological parents go together, but this is not always the case. For Billy, just like the social worker said, he was looking and looking for someone who was not looking for him. Thus we get a really solid character arc in the movie as Billy painfully realizes that his mother willingly abandoned him and doesn’t really want him even when he’s older and shows back up at her door -- she literally says that “it’s nobody”. And instead, Billy eventually recognizes that he has found his family not in his long lost biological mother but in his new foster parents and foster siblings. He can choose to make his home there with them, and he recognizes that they have accepted him and supported him. They overlooked his mistakes, they supported him as he dealt with the superhero stuff, and they even helped him find his mom because they knew it was important to him. Ironically, in helping Billy find the biological mother who abandoned him, the foster kids showed that they were his true family.

Another related element of Billy’s character arc is that he goes from thinking he can take care of himself to realizing that he does need and benefit from having others to help and support him. At the beginning of the movie, he tries to tell the social worker -- a character from Sandberg’s prior film, Lights Out, by the way -- he tells her that he can make it on his own, but she says not until he’s 18. And with Freddy, he initially keeps his distance, but then when he is shocked by his powers, he reaches out for help. They have a honeymoon phase together, learning about the powers and trying them out, but eventually Billy reverts back to being on his own. He pushes Freddy away, and in his conversation with Mary on the side of the street, he says that it’s important to “look out for number one.” Freddy calls Billy out for this selfish behavior, and points out that it is non-heroic, and the behavior leads to the near tragedy with the bus, and it sets up Billy to eventually learn his lesson about the necessity of family and of sidekicks, basically.

Billy’s move from isolation to family happens to be another good contrast with Sivana. When Sivana takes Billy to the rock of eternity, he explicitly says that no one believed him, and that he was all alone in his pursuit to gain this magical power and prove himself right. So Sivana as an adult had gone through his whole life up to that point as an isolated sort of soul.

Freddy Freeman
For Billy, his closest partner in the film is of course Freddy Freeman. Freddy’s character functions very effectively as the sidekick for Billy, as someone to talk to throughout the movie so that we can hear what Billy’s thinking and how he’s dealing with everything that’s been thrust upon him. Freddy also works well as one of the comedic elements of the film and on his interactions with Billy as they test superpowers and basically just deliver on the “promise of the premise” (as Blake Snyder calls it). Going to a movie about Shazam, we knew we were going to see adolescent boys being adolescent boys and we knew we were going to have some fun as they learned about the powers and maybe initially tried them in immature ways. Freddy was central to those scenes, and then he was also there, helping Billy to shift into a more responsible and heroic use of his powers.

A great thing about the movie is that Freddy functioned well as the sidekick but he also had a clear character arc himself -- overall, we saw him transition from a diehard superhero fan, but a very isolated fan, to the opportunity to be the manager and confidant of a superhero, and ultimately he gets to be a superhero himself, included on a team rather than being a spectator or a social outcast. Throughout this character arc, there are a few bumps along the way, such as his difficulty maintaining the secret about his involvement because he longer wants to put up with the social bullying and isolation, and of course there are also some brief tensions with Billy, but the general arc is clear.

And there were also some nice writing flourishes along his path. For example, the seemingly throwaway conversation in the lunchroom actually has some nice connections to Freddy’s character. He asks about choosing flight or invisibility, with flight as the obvious hero power and invisibility as a “total villain power”. Freddy initially says that he’d rather go around in life unseen by others and living life by himself. Freddy says that the study finding that people would choose invisibility when they are anonymous speaks to the idea that “most people don’t feel like heroes on the inside”. So this kind of reveals some self doubts, which we will mention as a theme later on, but for Freddy, we get a sense that he is maybe internalizing the bullying and the marginalization that society is doing to him. Just as we saw with young Thad, that kind of bullying can lead to villainy, but it doesn’t have to. Happily, with Freddy, he eventually gains his superpowers in Act 3 and he excitedly says, “I can fly!” This moment of elation is not just about the power, it’s an affirmation, even to himself, that he really is a hero inside.

Another reason we like that flight vs. invisibility dialogue is that Freddy talks about people feeling like heroes inside, or not, and then of course, later on, Shazam literally becomes the manifestation of a hero inside Billy Batson.

The other main thing we wanted to mention about Freddy Freeman is about the fact that he is bringing some representation into the film of people with disabilities. Freddy’s is a physical disability related to his mobility. The film doesn’t explicitly say the cause or whether he was born with it or it was something that happened after he had learned to walk, but Freddy does give two false explanations -- being thrown out a window by Victor and having a cancer diagnosis. In his comic book origin in the 1940s, Freddy’s a teenager when his left leg is permanently injured by Captain Nazi. And in the comics, when Freddy transforms to his superhero persona of Captain Marvel Jr, he has the full ability of his legs. This suggests that his regular legs are something that need to be fixed, which sort of makes sense since it was an accident and an injury that affected his left leg. But if in the film, Freddy is just born as he is, then it’s not something that needs to be fixed -- he’s just differently abled, and he has a different way of moving through the world than other people. I am guessing that this latter is the case because as Wyatt Y Halpert pointed out on Twitter, during the scenes when Freddy is transformed into his superhero self, he is always flying, not running. So his legs were not something that needed to be “fixed” as a superhero, his legs are part of who he is, and he just gained additional superpowers like flight. We will take a closer look at this when the film is released on home media, but thanks to @WyattYHalpert for posting about it and for pointing out that Freddy deserves childhood wish fulfillment just as much as anyone else.

Another positive thing is that, throughout the movie, we never got the sense that Freddy was ashamed of his disability. When he’s introduced, he makes light of it, but that is probably a coping strategy to try to put other people at ease. And in fact, that’s what sticks out to us more about Freddy’s character in relation to his disability -- he’s not sorry for himself, he is just frustrated sometimes by how other people treat him. In this sense, the problem is not actually his physical limitations -- what makes him disabled is that he’s treated differently by others. It’s like the old saying from Sartre, “Hell is other people.” Well in this case, “Disability is other people.” Freddy is differently abled, but physically he can live his life. The difficulties arise because of how others treat him. People are awkward when they meet him because they overly focus on his crutches instead of on him as a person. People pick on him because he’s different, or they exclude him from things because they assume he wouldn’t want to participate or wouldn’t feel comfortable joining in, but of course the social exclusion might hurt more than anything else.

I don’t have any personal disabilities, so I can’t speak from direct experience, but I have some friends who have disabilities and I’ve gone to sessions where many different people talk about what it’s like to live in an able-centered world. And the way Freddy is portrayed in the film seems to match up well with what I’ve heard them say. Of course not everyone will identify with Freddy as presented in the film, and it’s not fair to assume that Freddy should represent all persons with disabilities, since he’s just one character, but it is good if there are some things that resonate. For example, Freddy said that what’s hard for him is that he’s constantly trying to get people to not feel sorry for him. And he got upset when Billy was not always including him or treating him with respect. And this is similar to one of the issues that came up in those disability sessions, which was that for the people there with limited mobility, their biggest challenge was being treated like furniture. Instead of being included in activities, others might just find a comfortable seat for them or help them find a spot in the corner, out of the way, and then they would basically feel ignored or like they’re not really part of what’s going on. So maybe Freddy has had lots of experiences just like that, which makes it really hit him harder when it comes from Billy, after they had started to build something together.

There’s a very powerful scene where Freddy goes beyond his sarcastic and quirky exterior and opens up some of his emotions to Billy. Freddy says that of course he is envious of Billy’s abilities -- and this fits in with the sin of envy that we see later, by the way -- and we really can’t begrudge Freddy for this envy. Any teenager would probably have some envy if they’re around someone who gets amazing new powers in a seemingly undeserving way, especially if the person left out was a big fan of superheroes and the new hero wasn’t. But what hurts Freddy even more, and what does connect to his having a physical disability, is that he has this history of people not seeing him -- of being treated like furniture as my friend with disabilities put it -- and Freddy says that “most people don’t see [him], because most people don’t want to.” And Freddy is really disappointed that now even Billy, someone who was becoming a friend and had the potential to be like a brother, was basically pushing him away. Sure, Freddy may not have handled the situation perfectly, for instance with the bullies at school, but regardless of what Freddy did, we can just see in the movie how it affected him emotionally, and it gave some nice depth to the character.

The fact that Freddy had some envy of Billy and that Freddy and Billy went through a rough patch in their relationship, makes it even more impressive that Freddy was there helping Billy figure out how to be a hero -- Freddy really wanted to be doing it himself, but he helped Billy instead, until of course the moment at the end when Freddy really could join him with some of the powers of Shazam -- and it was a very selfless act when Freddy went in to save Billy with the batarang, doing that very heroic thing even without superpowers himself and doing it for a person who had been somewhat selfish in the past.

Earlier in the movie, Freddy and Billy together also just work very well as a duo that delivers on the “promise of the premise.” That is, in a movie that’s like a super-version of Big, audiences are expecting to see some hijinks and some humor based on the juxtaposition of immaturity and superpowers. And that came through very clearly with Billy and Freddy together. And it concludes well in a couple ways at the end -- for example, when they realize that they now have the lair they had always wanted.

Mary, Eugene, Pedro, Darla

Having gone through some of our thoughts on the three main characters -- Thad Sivana, Billy Batson, and Freddy Freeman -- we’ll now quickly run through a few secondary characters before moving on to some of the themes of Shazam!.

The foster siblings are of course a very important set of secondary characters. They feature prominently in the themes of family and home, and they are an important part of Billy’s character growth and also the resolution of the plot, with them all joining Billy to defeat the seven deadly sins. It’s difficult to deal with all the sins and temptations on your own, but with friends and family supporting you, they can all be defeated.

Although they were an important part of the movie, and their interactions with one another and their support and acceptance of each other and of Billy was a big part of the heart of the movie, they didn’t really get a lot of individual character development -- other than Freddy, of course. We are stating this lack of development as a fact, not as a critique. We don’t necessarily expect the secondary characters to have a lot of depth or nuanced arcs. In some great films, you do get that, but usually, with secondary characters it’s sufficient to just have them be interesting, have personalities, and serve the plot or the growth of the main characters.

So by these standards, Shazam! does a very nice job with the foster siblings as secondary characters. They are a very diverse group, the ways they interact with one another is interesting and fun to watch, and they are essential to the plot in many different ways. They also each have a personality trait or quirk that the audience can latch onto quicky.

For Mary, we see right away that she’s trying to get into college -- Cal Tech, specifically, and I can say that personally I was very excited to hear her talking to the mathematics department!. She is excited for this opportunity, but she has some tension because it’s far away from home. She exhibits a positive relationship with her foster parents and she talks about being a foster child who can “find family and friends in the most unlikely of places.” This line is not only a clever way to impress the admissions officer or university representative, but it also connects with some of the underlying themes of the film.

With Pedro, he’s a quiet character and we can pick up clues that he is very kind hearted. We also learn that he wants to “get swole,” so that goal of being stronger and fitter works well as a way to accentuate the idea of Billy gaining powers. And then of course Pedro gets to gain his strength at the end of the movie. Pedro is also important because film is a visual medium and he provides a much different silhouette than the other foster kids -- for example, Freddy, Eugene, and Darla are all very small in stature, and even Billy can present a very modest silhouette, and Pedro stands out with his stockier build. He works well as part of a heterogenous group.

For Eugene and Darla, they’re much more talkative than Pedro. With Eugene, he is given the clear character trait of enjoying video games, technology, and some light hacking. With Darla, she is small in stature but has a big, open heart. Her willingness to accept new family members immediately provides a nice contrast to Billy’s initial reticence and guardedness. Even as a secondary character, Darla is part of a very nice motif throughout the film of being a “good sister” and a “good brother,” which threads nicely all the way through to the end of the movie.

Taken together, the siblings are really important because they are willing and ready to accept Billy into their family, and they’re just waiting for him to accept the acceptance. Even before Billy is that kind to them, they are willing to help him find his mother, because they see that this is what he wants. And then later they go after Billy to rescue him in the rock of eternity. These kids show a great deal of love, kindness, and courage. All of this makes it very well earned when Billy realizes that he should share his powers with them. And the gaining of powers is a nice payoff to what had been set up for the foster siblings, for example Freddy’s love of superheros, Pedro’s desire to be strong and fit, and Darla’s joy at being fully a part of things with Billy and the others.

Victor & Rosa Vasquez
Now, although they aren’t involved in the third act battle, another very important part of the foster family is obviously the parents. Victor and Rosa Vasquez are two heart-warming characters in this film. They are not biological parents, but they are much much better representations of what it means to be a parent than Daddy Sivana is. Where Daddy Sivana looked down on his son, the Vasquezes lift up their children. Where Sivana ridiculed excuses or the limitations of youth, the Vasquezes showed great patience and a willingness to keep their arms and hearts open, even after mistakes. Where Sivana expected Thad to just grow up, the Vasquezes realized that people, especially children, need an adjustment period. When they bring Billy home, they empathize and say that they “know it can be a lot. Take it at your own speed.” This contrasts quite a bit with Sivana and the older brother who just say, “When are you going to be a man?”

There are also some nice hints at backstory for the Vasquezes. We learn that they were foster children themselves, and so that contributed to their desire to provide that support and stability to others. Their strong skills of empathy and patience may be due in part to the fact that they can personally identify with what the foster children are going through. They keep that personal memory of what it was like to be a kid, which connects well to the theme of childhood versus adulthood that is always strong with Shazam stories. Victor Vasquez even says at one point that he remains “young at heart.” So this points to the idea that your outer body may not always match how you feel inside.

We’ll talk more about Daddy Sivana in a moment, but we wanted to point out that it’s also important that the Vasquezes contrast with Billy’s biological mother. She chooses to reject the role of mother, whereas the Vasquezes willingly choose the role of parents. Billy’s biological mom shows selfishness and rejection while the Vasquezes show generosity and acceptance. This provides an opportunity for Billy Batson to learn and grow as a character, realizing the benefits and importance of what the Vasquezes are offering, over mere biology.

Daddy Sivana
Now, back to Daddy Sivana. He is portrayed very effectively by John Glover, who you may remember as the villain’s father in past TV shows -- he was Lionel Luthor on Smallville and he also played Sylar’s father on Heroes. We’ve already mentioned most of what we wanted to say about him earlier when we were talking about Thad Sivana and the contrasts with the Vasquez parenting style. But we’ll also quickly add that Daddy Sivana seems to blame others for his problems. In particular, we see him blaming Thad for the problems in their family. And this is also taken up by the older brother, where they blame young Thad for the car accident even though it’s not actually Thad’s fault. We see that Thad was mistreated even before the accident, it just became much worse after the accident as they can now blame him for every kind of problem that resulted from that. And Thad resents this and lets it fester for decades until he ultimately goes after them when he has the power.

For Daddy Sivana’s conclusion, we have the deadly sin of greed. Although greed was not a huge part of the opening scene and the interactions with young Thad, we can definitely infer an amount of greed based on the Sivana’s business operations and lifestyle. And we can tell that Thad, having lived with Daddy Sivana for years and years off screen, he sees greed as a big underlying problem for his father. This also contrasts with the Vasquezes who don’t seem to be greedy at all.

The Wizard
The final secondary character that we want to mention is the wizard. He plays an important role in the plot, obviously, and it is nice to get yet another DC origin story that has a stylized history lesson told by an older character -- there was Jor-El, Hippolyta, Atlanna, and now the wizard. The allusion to Black Adam was also cool and hopefully we get follow up films eventually, because Dwayne Johnson has been waiting in the wings for quite awhile now.

We won’t get into the technical details of how the wizard’s magic searches for and identifies recruits or about whether someone else theoretically exists who has a heart as pure or purer than Billy’s. Those technical details aren’t as important to us as thematic resonance in films. And with regard to themes, the main thing we wanted to say is that it’s interesting that we see the wizard in a state of extreme isolation, but we find out that he used to have siblings and he lost them. This connects him thematically to Billy and his search for a family. Initially, Billy is looking in the wrong place -- trying to find his biological mother, but eventually Billy realizes that he has found the family he was looking for, with the foster siblings who were already around him. For the wizard, he went the other way -- he had the siblings but then unfortunately lost them. And it might not just be that he’s weakened on his own, he might be weakened because he’s alone. The strength may have come from the full council, with family members supporting one another. And as we said before, the fact that there are seven deadly sins to manage, make it fitting that one needs the support of many to stand up to them.


Okay, let’s move on to a few of the themes that we traced through the film. These are preliminary because they’re based on just one or two viewings of the film, and they could be rephrased in different ways, but hopefully you can see the core of what we’re noticing. And of course you may have your own thoughts to add and your own interpretations.

There are four themes we want to mention, and they revolve around these topics: Heart, Family, Adulthood, and Doubt.


So let’s start with heart. This is not my favorite of the themes, nor do I think it’s one of the stronger ones in the movie, but it’s worth addressing because it’s a big part of the character and the wizard literally says that he is seeking one who is pure of heart. This also connects with the ideas of childhood and adulthood and the feeling that children can sometimes have, where they have big dreams and want to do big things but they are still treated by society as not yet having anything to meaningfully contribute. But heart speaks to the potential and continuity of a person -- even a kid can have a good heart, and that heart will stay with them from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. In this way, heart and having a good or an evil heart is sort of an indicator of what lies ahead for the person.

One thing that the movie makes clear is that having a pure heart is not the same thing as being a perfect person. Billy is far from perfect in his behavior and sometimes in his attitude, but he is still identified as having a pure heart. We take this to mean that heart is about deeper intentions and the kind of person you want to be, even if you don’t live up to it in every moment. To put it another way, a good heart might mean that a person at least strives to be good, even if they fall short sometimes. Contrast this with Doctor Sivana who actually says that he is not pure of heart, and he willingly gives in to temptation to gain the power, which he intends to use for selfish reasons.

Again, this isn’t one of my favorite themes from the movie. I think part of it is just my own personal perspective where I don’t really like to think about purely good people versus evil people, or those with a pure heart versus those with a tainted heart or something like that. To me, I think about it more like Suicide Squad or Wonder Woman where we recognize that there is good and bad inside of every person and living a moral life is about navigating those tensions and trying your best to tend toward the good. Rather than talking about someone with a pure heart, I think it’s more productive to think about the Cherokee legend of the two wolves. The story goes that a grandfather tells a young boy about a fight going on inside him and inside every person -- a fight between an evil wolf and a good wolf. The evil wolf is fighting for anger, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, and superiority. The good wolf is fighting for joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and truth. Thinking about this fight within each person, the young boy asks, “Which wolf will win?” And the grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

This Cherokee legend makes it directly about choice rather than about the luck of whether you have a pure heart or an impure heart. It’s interesting, though, that the characteristics of the bad wolf match quite well with the Seven Deadly Sins. The sins are rooted in the Catholic church’s history, going back to the fourth Century in the Common Era. They are -- pride, envy, greed, anger, sloth, gluttony, and lust. The movie states that a pure heart can overcome these sins and can also reject the temptation of the actual demons representing them. We can also see the sins playing out in different parts of the movie, with Billy overcoming them and Sivana embracing them.

For example, with pride, Billy definitely has a bout with pride as he shows off his powers and starts to think he’s better than other people. But then later he is brought back down to Earth and actually has to be rescued by some of the people he had started to reject. With envy, Freddy has to grapple with this very directly, but it has a good resolution, whereas Sivana was probably envious of Billy for being champion and he does not handle it well. Anger is another one where Sivana basically embraces the sin, lashing out at Billy and his entire family, and embracing his anger to exact revenge on his brother and father. Billy, on the other hand, has anger in relation to his mother but he handles it by walking away, and although it’s very sad and difficult for him, he moves toward the embrace of his new family.

I do give the film credit for having the people around Billy, and especially his foster family, help to bring out his pureness of heart and give him the strength to meet and overcome the sins, both abstractly and physically. From a religious perspective, Rebecca also noticed that the foster family says blessings before they eat. And the Sivana’s were not shown to be religious at all. So perhaps this religious connection is something that prepared the kids to be able to cultivate a pure heart and defeat the sins.

Family and Home -- You choose your family, and “it’s not a home until you call it home.”

Next we want to think about family and the closely related concept of home. As you could hear when we were talking through the characters, there are lots of messages that one can pickup from this movie about family. One simple one is the simple theme that “You choose your family.” This is a simple idea, but it’s also somewhat profound because in the biological conception of family, it’s not actually a choice at all. But biological family is only one way to think about family. For Billy, his big arc is to realize that with his mother, he’s been searching for someone who wasn’t searching for him. She had made her choice and left him to be cared for by the state, and eventually Billy had to make his own choice to embrace his new foster family. As we said before, the Vasquezes chose to be foster parents. They strive purposefully to make a home and build a new family -- it’s diverse, it’s a bit crazy as Rosa says, but they have real connections and, most important to this theme, they are wanting to be a family.

On the other side, the Sivanas are a biological family but they don’t seem at all like they would’ve chosen Thad as the younger son, and it doesn’t seem as though Thad would’ve chosen to have the big brother and the father that he did. But Sivana does choose to ally himself with the deadly sins. So that ends up becoming his family, so to speak.

This theme is not just present in the film but is nicely developed. The school bullies tap into the theme when they call out Freddy for needing his “fake family.” These bullies, who are not sympathetic characters, refuse to recognize the value of a chosen family rather than a biological family. The filmmakers also used parallels and contrasts to bring the theme to life. In addition to what we’ve already covered, we also see that Billy and Thad at times are preoccupied with their biological family. Billy is preoccupied with finding his mother and proving to himself that she wants him as a son, and Thad is preoccupied with proving to his father and his brother that he’s not a screw up, and that he wasn’t lying about the rock of eternity. This extreme emphasis by them on their biological family, on what is essentially a chance of fate, can be counterproductive and it may be more beneficial to focus on choosing and cultivating a more supportive family. This is represented by Billy learning and arcing his character, whereas Sivana heads down a darker path.

Now of course in general, many biological families are not as toxic as Billy’s or Sivana’s were. And there can also be an overlap between the biological family and the chosen family -- many people do choose to commit to their biological family and invest in it and make it work. Others may be very thankful for their biological family, and if they were given the choice, they would stay with them whole-heartedly. But nevertheless, it is still interesting to think about the relationship between family and choice.

Another nice filmmaking flourish is in the juxtaposition of certain scenes. We noticed that right when Billy is starting to make some connections with Freddy and Darla, the filmmakers cut right to the boardroom scene where Thad is completely severing ties with his family. This scene is even marked with the Sivana slogan, which is that “family is more than just a word.”

The family ideas also connect directly to the notion of home, because home is basically where you are with your family. The film’s dialogue explicitly calls out this theme, with several references to Billy finding a home and settling down, and then the Vasquezes say very directly that home is something you have choose. “It’s not a home until you call it a home.” So with the notion of family and with the notion of home, the movie seems to be making the point that it’s not just about biology or about the place that you happen to live. Family and home are both active choices – they are things that we do and create together, they do not happen by accident. And they are more than just words, they are actions. For Billy to have a home and to find his family, he had to actually be willing to open himself up and start acting like a “good brother” and he had to allow himself to make those connections and settle in. This is not a “fake family” at all, this is a very real thing because it’s a purposeful and active choice of people supporting each other --- of people doing the opposite of what the Sivanas did for Thad, and the opposite of what Billy’s biological mother did for Billy.

There’s also a bit of identity work going on here. Billy in choosing his family and his home is also starting to identify as a brother and a son. Early on, his identity is completely tied up with finding his biological mother, and he identifies as being someone who was separated from his mother, not someone who had been rejected by his mother. Throughout the movie, he has to process beyond that and start to figure out who he really wants to be, and face the reality of his situation. As he is figuring this out, it parallels the fact that he is also figuring out his powers, what his superhero name should be, and what kind of adult he wants to be, which brings us to the next major theme.

Power, and What does it mean to be an adult?

With regard to power, as we just said, Billy goes through the process of discovering his powers. And there’s a big question of how he should use those powers. Freddy is a witness to the powers and he has some thoughts on the subject, but other family members also chime in with their ideas about what people should do with the powers that they have. This is not just a theme for superheroes, it’s something that we can all think about – we all have some level of power, we have capabilities and opportunities to affect change in the world, and so what should we do with that? Should we think about only ourselves and our desires, or should we strive to help others?

Another character that very explicitly deals with power is Doctor Sivana. He comments several times throughout the movie about his desire for power, and having been downtrodden as a kid, he is very hungry to have extreme power, magical or otherwise, as an adult. And being the villain, he serves as the negative side of this theme – he represents a very destructive and poor use of power, complete with deadly sins and what-have-you.

The movie also makes the point that power is not just something that an individual has, but it’s something that you really get from and through other people. Shazam even says near the end, “What good’s power if you’ve got no one to share it with?” The wizard also implies that actually a champion’s greatest power is family, and so that ties the previous theme together with this one.

A moment ago we were talking about how everyone, not just superheroes, can think about how to use their power. And this connects with the very human trait of growing up, of becoming an adult. As children grow into adolescents and then into adults, they are gaining more and more power. They can do more and more things, and society starts to open up more doors for them. The Shazam! movie not only addresses the concept of power but it specifically tackles the question of adulthood and what it really means to be an adult. This is a very fitting theme for a movie about the Captain Marvel / Shazam character. This is a long-standing character who’s defining trait has always been a boy who is able to magically turn into a fully-grown superhero. So it makes a lot of sense that the filmmakers would use this as an opportunity to expose things about adulthood by putting kids in adult-type situations.

With Billy, once he has his adult physique, he uses it superficially at first. He buys beer, he gets out of school, he tries to talk to women, and he goes to a strip club. This is an exploration of what some children or some immature people might imagine adulthood to be about. But we see through the course of the movie that it’s not very rewarding or productive. Billy says he can do what he wants, but Freddy calls him out for it, saying that he is turning into a showoff and a bully. By the end, there’s a nice arc and a message here, as we talked about earlier in the character segments.

And as with the family theme and the power theme, a really great thing about the movie is that it’s not just the main character who informs the theme but the villain as well. Sivana’s scenes also shed light on what it means to be an adult. Right from the beginning of the film, Thad’s father told him that men don’t whine, and men don’t play games. So he is explicitly commenting on what it means to be an adult, and he is using it to deride some so-called childish things. The brother also piles onto this point, asking the 8-ball, “Is Thad ever going to be a man?” So they are holding up being a man as some sort of ultimate goal, but their vision of a man is not a very positive one at all. And the ironic thing is that young Thad, because of this teasing and mistreatment, actually never does grow or mature beyond that point. Later in the movie, Thad still holds these same grudges and resentments from when he was a boy.

Doctor Sivana also later gets linked up with the seven deadly sins, or as they have been represented in the past in the comic books, the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. An interesting thing about these is that in many cases they really only exist as temptations for adults – children in their innocence are often immune. So part of what it means to be an adult is learning how to grapple with and resist the seven enemies of man.

The final thing we wanted to comment on with regard to the theme of adulthood is about Billy’s mom and Billy’s foster parents. Billy’s mom shows what it is like to not yet be ready for adulthood, and so there’s a retreat and there’s pain that goes along with avoiding adult responsibilities. And that retreat by Billy’s mom has a profound impact on Billy’s childhood. In contrast, we have the Vasquezes as foster parents. They are a very good example of adulthood. They show that adulthood does not mean being serious and stern all the time, like Daddy Sivana suggested. The Vasquezes say that their life can be “crazy but fun”. But as adult, they are willing to take on the challenge of raising a large and diverse family, and they are actually willing to choose to do that, rather than running away from it like Billy’s mom.

There’s a quick line from the Vasquezes where they say that they, too, were foster children, and that’s part of what makes them passionate about their foster parenting now. This brings out an interesting point about adults and their connections back to when they were kids. With Sivana, he is an adult but he still clings in a very negative way to his pain and trauma from when he was a kid, and that manifests in very destructive things now. Whereas for the Vasquezes, they too have memories and a connection to their past experiences as children, but unlike Sivana they have used it as a very positive part of what they’re doing now as adults.

Alright, the final theme we’re going to talk about here is also sort of about childhood and the transition toward adulthood, but it is particularly about people’s potential and the support they receive to achieve that potential. To phrase it as a statement, we might say that the film makes the following point: People have doubts about who they are and who they can become, and others can either affirm the worst or encourage the best in them. Or to say it more succinctly, we should give people a chance to realize their potential.

As with the other themes, this one comes through potently with both Billy and Thad. For Billy, he tells the wizard that he has the wrong guy. Billy doesn’t think he’s pure of heart -- he doesn’t think he could possibly be the correct choice for champion. But the wizard believes in Billy, and perhaps that confidence and the choice to hold Billy up is part of what helps Billy actually believe in himself more and become the hero that he didn’t know was inside himself. Similarly, Billy may have been feeling that he didn’t really deserve a family and so his constant running away was like a form of avoidance behavior, where he was not allowing previous foster families to make a connection with him, and then when they didn’t take him back, it was like proving his point -- it was confirming his prior belief that he didn’t really deserve a family, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. But then with the Vasquezes, even after he runs away and steals Freddy’s bullet, they still just take him right back. They give him another chance and they believe that he does deserve a family. They don’t write him off, and that makes all the difference.

On the other side of things, Thad Sivana is furious and yells at the wizard for writing him off as not good enough. Right after we see Thad having a lack of support from his father and brother, we then see the wizard who also does not support him and instead declares him to basically be permanently unfit. This messes with Thad’s psyche and his sense of himself very negatively. One might say that the wizard was wise and made the correct choice in rejecting Thad and choosing to give Billy the powers, because after all, Thad ended up being a villain and Billy ended up being a hero. But it might be the case that the wizard’s choices played a big part in actually creating those results.

Again, when dealing with others, especially with children, we can either affirm the worst or encourage the best in them. This theme is especially prominent for me because I not only have children but also work in schools, and for educators, a big part of the job is having a belief that the encouragement and expectations that we have for kids really matter.

Now, when I stated the theme earlier I also included an opening clause which is that “people naturally have doubts” about themselves. I think this part of the theme comes through very explicitly when Freddy is talking to Billy in the lunchroom. He tells a story about how people secretly doubt that they’re heroic. We also see Billy having doubts about himself when he is offered the opportunity to become a superhero. Freddy also says that people, when they are anonymous, will often choose the villain power instead of the hero power. So perhaps people secretly want to explore their villain side -- they are tempted by the seven deadly sins -- or perhaps people are just doubtful about their capacity to be a hero. They might think of a hero as something high and mighty, or something pure and unattainable. I would say, however, that we could all be on the path toward being a hero if we receive that support and encouragement, like Billy does from the wizard and from his foster family.

A critique might be that the pure heart aspect of the mythology here muddies up the theme. If being a hero is about inborn purity, rather than about choices that we make and support we get in navigating a complex path through our lives, then I agree that it’s kind of a mixed message. But my personal preference is away from purity because I don’t find it very realistic or very resonant with my experience. I prefer the idea of acknowledging doubts as a central part of being human, and that relationships and support can help people overcome those doubts and reach their positive potential. And I think the Shazam film does a good job of illustrating that theme through its story.

 End of Episode

That is our overall analysis of Shazam, based on our initial viewings of the movie in theaters. We might revise our thoughts once we see it on home media. I also wanted to point out quickly that for me personally, I think the humor worked really well and I think a lighter tone makes a lot of sense for these characters. Although I loved the seriousness and the depth of Batman v Superman, I recognize that that tone does not make sense for all the different characters in the universe.

With regard to the music by Benjamin Wallfisch, I thought it was adequate and definitely heightened the humor and the emotion in certain spots, but it didn’t impress me as thoroughly as some other DCEU scores like Hans Zimmer’s or Gregson-Williams on Wonder Woman, nor did it impress me as much as Wallfisch’s own score in Blade Runner 2049, where he partnered with Zimmer. But again, it’s about tone. I think the music did its job in Shazam, because this movie was not as much about grand epicness as it was about the humor and heart from the actors’ personal performances, and so the music can play more of a supporting role.

I also thought the cinematography and general look of the film was very strong, especially considering its more modest budget, relatively speaking. And as I’ve said several times before, I think it is very wise for film studios to release modestly-budgeted superhero films so that they don’t all have the immense financial pressure of, say, a Batman v Superman or a Justice League. Because of the smaller budget, a sequel for Shazam is much more likely than it would’ve been with a 150 Million dollar budget, and if a sequel does happen, I think it will do quite well because even though the box office numbers aren’t stratospheric right now, the overall reception is very positive and I think it will be very much enjoyed in home media release, so there will be a large audience ready to support the sequel when it hits theaters.

If you want more Shazam content, let me recommend the DC Universe app. It has a ton of old Shazam and Captain Marvel comic books, including the New 52 run by Geoff Johns. It also has the old 1970s TV show and the animated film, Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam.

But anyway, that will wrap up this episode. And if you’re a huge fan of Shazam, I’m sorry to say that we are not planning to do a scene-by-scene breakdown of Shazam. We will probably do a commentary track when it comes out on blu-ray, but other than that, our plan is to focus on Justice League and Aquaman on this public feed, and we’ll still be continuing forward with our Man of Steel scene-by-scene analysis on Patreon. Please join us for that discussion of Man of Steel by contributing at, and you can also get access to other bonus content from our team. And as always, thanks for listening.

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