With Celebration SHAZAM! in full swing here on the site, and the movie hits cinemas tomorrow, we’ve brought in a special guest to write about their experiences and love of Billy Batson, and Shazam.
Please give her a warm welcome!
It’s 2019 and Billy Batson’s story has never mattered more. He’s a lost child, emotionally and literally, in a world where hardening to cynicism is able to call us over even the most perseverant and hopeful heart in some small fashion. He’s enveloped by whimsy and magic, while even retaining his internal sincerity, down to the charmingly punchy phrase “Holy Moley”. The magic doesn’t degrade him, only amplifying the truest good potential and that no-catch Arthurian sword pull is a rarity in the culture we surround ourselves with today. And holy moley did the Shazam movie honor this legacy in full.
Since the Golden Age of the 1940s, CC Beck’s brilliant creation Billy Batson has been chosen as the golden boy with the golden heart, simple super spacetime subway to meet a wizard and learn a magic word. You know, basic stuff. More modern adaptations—notably the wonderful 1990s Power of Shazam and the New 52 Shazam series that firmly renamed the heroic identity from Captain Marvel to Shazam—paint a complexity in the ‘chosen one’ myth.
Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam begins to harden Billy as an orphan before his fateful subway encounter, but still, he was an earnest diamond in the rough sort of situation. The New 52 Geoff Johns and Gary Frank Shazam turn the selection process on its head, with the wizard at wits ends over the centuries unable to find a truly pure-hearted successor. In this take, our Billy will have to do as the wizard settles on a rather bratty interpretation of the golden boy, who he claims to see a spark of goodness in. It’s a rather mixed bag for a big fan of the character such as myself, I’ve always wanted my favorite characters to feel more nuanced and human but not at the sacrifice of their core self.
Complexity and purely Golden Age properties don’t tend to mesh well, and I’ve found the magnetism of Captain Marvel/Shazam in his larger than life stories that spin more as tall tales akin to Paul Bunyan—such as Captain Marvel vs the World—or more often than not they are myth and magic-centric a la King Arthur in how a floating impossible ‘castle’ (The Rock of Eternity) needs a champion and the numerous trials of self one must endure being sure they can pull the sword from the stone or lightning from the Rock. Simplicity in the design always reads as punchy enthusiasm but stapling down magic, especially THIS kind of magic, into the tangible grit filled emotion we feel on a daily basis is scary. Kid’s wish fulfillment for a better life begins to muddy, adults begin to question the motives of the wizard and spin gruesome child soldier takes on the mold (see Alan Moore’s Miracleman/Marvelman).
Now, I’m going to talk about a real magic trick.
I’m going to just say I don’t plan to talk spoilers for Shazam, but I will talk themes and characters, and my emotions of the like.
At the risk of comparing media adaptations of all sorts, I feel the need to show you all where I come from. Honesty is the best policy. I fell in love with the Justice League Unlimited version of the character. He is so naively good, voiced against the traditional deep timbre in a just-settled-into-an-adult voice kind of softness that spoke to me even as a child. Billy Batson felt like he saw my heroes of the Justice League like I did, as idols. Unattainable, divine, and just the best humanity could offer…only to have his world shaken by the greys of political manipulation and emotional strife.
This Billy and the short animated film Superman/Shazam: Return of Black Adam cemented this notion of a sensitive soul searching for guidance in a world often unfair and cruel. But he makes due. He retains his childlike wonder and overcomes the temptations of darkness and anger. It inspires me, the simplicity…”be good and good will follow.”
Flash forward to modern day, the onscreen DC universe is attempting an enema on its over-reliance on dark themes and constant introspections of the deconstructed archetype. Clear knockouts like Wonder Woman and Aquaman have risen up as singular visions of the creators and tilting hard against the grim. Ironically, Shazam director David Sandberg of Annabelle horror film acclaim found my favorite take on warmness, sincerity, and heart since the moment in Richard Donner’s Superman with Lois interviewing Superman. The massive history lesson, my taste crap, all to say… this is probably up there for my favorite all-time interpretation of the character. I’m flabbergasted on how much I care.
Shazam kicks. On every level, this movie wears its heart on its sleeve and I find that so very endearing. The suspense and occasionally scary moments this flick has are played completely straight, clearly an adept line from Sandberg. But this is a 1980s toned coming of age story, maybe even just finding of the ‘new normal’ after chasing a white whale for so long. This Billy Batson is flawed, yet never once did I see him as entire unlikable even when the moments he acts reserved or boastful—it doesn’t rub him in a petulant or ungrateful light. He’s lost and guarded. Searching for a happy ending in a world that didn’t want to see him. His growth is through allowing his sincerity to show through his confusion, fear, resolve, and steeling itself into what defines him as a hero. Shazam feels, and he will protect you. He’ll give you a stuffed animal and tell you everything is going to be okay because he’s been there too.
From the boy who cannot find his mother to a wizard unable to find a champion, Sandberg’s Shazam uses the demonstration of ‘finding worth’ and ‘finding family’ to etch the protagonist’s path towards any and everything.
Zachary Levi just destroys it as the titular big red cheese. I challenge you to remember he isn’t a 14-year-old. The balance he and young Billy Batson actor Asher Angel strike in portraying the same boy is remarkable. Between the foster siblings, parents, and Billy himself…the cast chemistry and comedic charm just ooze into nearly every scene. The growth of the genuine through vulnerability, the comedy that strengthens bonds instead of tearing down potentially emotional beats.
Sandberg manages a feat of synthesizing the Golden Age wonder, with the childhood optimism of film classics like 1988’s Big, and adopting the entire storyline of Johns’ New 52 Shazam arc but injecting a full-on earnest understanding of the motivations and situations that make Billy Batson fallible. A tightrope walk to say the least, and my gosh this movie nailed it in my eyes. I didn’t see a halfhearted swing at being dark or broody in the face of isolation, instead, I saw a realized family unit lifting each other up when the newest member needed it the most.
I’d be a fool if I didn’t dig into the film’s superb moral standings on foster care and of that found family idea. So so often is foster life depicted as tragic or depressingly unfit, here we have a take with a warm parental unit who in just about twenty minutes of screen time left an absolutely amazing impression on me. This movie grants the wish of “what if I felt accepted or loved”, opening its arms to children of all shapes, sizes, races, and orientations—a subtle line points to one of Billy’s brothers possibly discovering his homosexuality in a nice nod. With such a wide net cast I can’t help see these inspiring kids who feel as if being adopted or a foster child somehow makes them incomplete to find the love tethering them to the positivity in their own lives. Whatever form it takes, all in the goal to reach their fullest potential and happiest self.
Also, in being the sappy person I am, Billy Batson’s story unlocks the stalwartly disenfranchised adult experience I’ve felt creeping into my life as I spiral into self-loathing, stagnate at the job I work, or even decide to read the politically overwhelming news. Shazam’s message shows the childhood goodness in our hearts isn’t gone, it just needs a spark to snap back to life. Like magic.
And magic isn’t complicated, all you have to do is say the word.
– Sara Cohle