Billy Batson being an orphan is a central part of his heroic origin story, which factors into the inherent goodness that makes him worthy of becoming Shazam. Golden Age Captain Marvel comics established that even without a traditional nuclear family or the influence of adult role models in his life, Billy was ready to be, and capable of becoming, a powerful, self-sufficient person.
David F. Sandberg’s Shazam blends different pieces of Billy’s various origin stories together, introducing a modern take on the teen hero that feels both distinctly at home within the larger DCEU and true to the character he was when he first debuted almost 80 years ago. Here, Billy’s still a down-on-his-luck orphan, but the movie rethinks the circumstances of his being alone in a way that makes the very nature of his heroism and dual identities meaningful and genuinely powerful.
In many tellings of Billy’s life before becoming a superhero, it’s explained that he became an orphan following the tragic deaths of his parents. Through enduring the hardship of losing his mother and father and still keeping an optimistic outlook on life, Billy proves to the elder wizard Shazam that his heart is pure and he has what it takes to become a magical champion. When we meet Shazam’s Billy Batson however, his biggest motivation is his belief that his mother Marilyn is still alive out there, somewhere. In a flashback, we see that a much younger Billy became separated from his mother while at a carnival and, even after finding police officers, he was never able to find his mother again.
Shazam’s modern-day setting makes the police’s inability to figure out who Billy is (he knows his name), who his parents are, and where he lives somewhat implausible, but the movie asks you to suspend your disbelief for the sake of the larger emotional payoff that comes toward the latter third of the film. While a number of different foster families have attempted to adopt Billy by the time he’s going on 15, he’s run away from each, and in every home that’s welcomed him, he spends his time desperately trying to track down his mother. Much of Billy’s difficulty adjusting to life in his newest foster home is partially borne out of his being something of a loner, but the film makes clear that he resists connecting to other people because, on some level, he feels as if it that would require him to accept that his mom is actually gone.
While Billy’s spent a lifetime trying to get back to the family he lost as a child, Thaddeus Sivana, Shazam’s big bad, sets out on his path towards supervillainy in large part because of his family. Unlike Billy’s mother Marilyn, who’s shown to be caring (if beleaguered) in one flashback, Sivana’s father has an open disdain for his son, who he sees as being weak for being imaginative and interested in fantasy. At one point during Sivana’s childhood, the wizard Shazam considers appointing him as the world’s new champion, but the boy fails the wizard’s test when he shows that he’s vulnerable to the temptations of the seven deadly sins.
Whether Sivana’s actually an 'evil' person is one of the more interesting philosophical questions Shazam asks you to mull over as the events of the film play out. Young Thaddeus is deemed not to have a 'pure heart', but one has to wonder whether he would have, were it not for his father’s emotional distance and hostility towards his child.
At one point in the movie, Sivana’s father and older brother bond with one another while making fun of the kid, and to make things worse, when the wizard Shazam decides to pass on Thaddeus, he more or less dismisses him with an air that says 'please leave, garbage child. You’re wasting my time'. The devastation of learning that magic is real but he wasn’t 'good enough' to become part of it sends young Sivana into an emotional fit that inadvertently leads to a car accident which leaves his father using a wheelchair. From that moment, Shazam implies, Sivana and his father harboured nothing but a simmering resentment for one another for decades.
In their own ways, both Billy and Sivana lost their families. Shazam notes the differences between their circumstances for the bulk of the story, but the audience eventually learns that the pair of them are far more similar than they’ll ever know. Billy’s mom isn’t dead, or missing, and never actually 'lost' her son. She left Billy at the carnival on purpose, believing he’d be better off with whatever foster family the system would eventually be able to place him with. When Billy learns that his mother’s been living just a few subway stations away, he’s elated at the idea of being reunited with her, but when they meet, he’s faced with the difficult realities of the life she’s led without him – things he couldn’t possibly understand in full.
Though it’s left unsaid explicitly, as you watch Billy and Marilyn discuss what happened, you get the sense that leaving him behind was one of the most difficult things she’d ever done and she did it because she honestly wasn’t equipped to raise a kid on her own as a teenager. As Billy and Marilyn stand in the hallway of her apartment building, you can see that even after all of their time apart, she’s still getting on her own two feet, and parenthood isn’t exactly something she can afford to prioritise.
In the moment, Billy’s seeing his mother as an imperfect person in her own right and not just his mother. She’s a person who’s on her own path, and while he still loves her, he understands she’s not really his family any longer. It’s not her fault, exactly, it’s just the way things are. Whether or not she made the 'right' decision is up for debate, but what happened, happened – and they’ve both got to live with it as best as they can.
Both Billy and Sivana were let down by adults when they needed love and emotional support the most. Of course, having shitty parents doesn’t justify becoming a murderous supervillain the way Sivana does, but that’s the sort of thing that happens in a world full of people who fly around in Spandex fighting crime. The difference between Shazam’s hero and villain are their capacities to move on from the pain stemming from those moments when they were left to fend for themselves. Sivana clings to it and lets it consume him like a cancer, whereas Billy makes an effort to understand his own pain in order to begin letting it go.
You can attribute their different responses to the wizard Shazam’s implicit assertion that Sivana’s simply a bad person at heart, but it’s just as possible that what sets Billy apart from Thaddeus is the fact that he’s still a kid and was able to have a proper reconciliation with his mother during his formative years. Regardless of the reasons why Marilyn abandoned Billy, by confronting her about it, Billy frees himself to become part of a family that can give him what he needs.
Billy might not know it consciously, but his ability to move on and grow from his painful experiences makes him infinitely more mature than Sivana ever had the chance of being, and ultimately, that’s what makes him a hero.
Shazam is in cinemas now and a sequel is already in the works.
Featured image: Warner Bros.