As much a comedy as it is an action flick, DC's latest film, Shazam!, expands the horizon of what a superhero film can do. While villains get punched, the battle of good and evil is ultimately waged in the heart of a boy searching for family.
Shazam! tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old boy who was separated from his mother at a carnival when he was small. He's been in foster care ever since, repeatedly running away from foster families and group homes and committing minor misdemeanors, all in the name of tracking down his biological mother. When his social worker places him in a group home run by Victor and Rosa Vazquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), she warns Billy this is his last chance. Unsurprisingly, Billy is reluctant to give this new foster family a chance, despite the welcome of his five new foster siblings and the Vazquez' instance that he consider this his home. For Billy, "home" is with his biological mother and nowhere else.
If a foster kid in middle school didn't already have a hard enough time knowing his place, Billy is chosen by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to be his champion in the battle against the seven deadly sins. Now, when Billy says the magic word—“Shazam!”—he transforms into an adult man (played by a buff and hilarious Zachary Levi). If the film has been funny to this point, it now turns to full-on comedy, channeling Big to great effect.
While this premise is fun, it's never juvenile. The conflict that drives the film is Billy's own inability to accept his foster family. Before Billy’s first meal at the Vazquez house, Victor puts his hand over the middle of the table and calls for prayer. The rest of the family puts their hands in too; this is clearly a ritual that binds them together. But Billy crosses his arms and looks away, torn between the family in his head and the family inviting him to the table. He can’t bring himself to say yes to this family, even though the family has already said yes to him.
One of the Apostle Paul's favorite metaphors for the life of faith is that of adoption. In Ephesians 1, Paul announces, "In love [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will…” He wrote to the Galatians that "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, `Abba, Father.’”
He later expressed a more developed version of this same metaphor to the Romans, writing, "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, `Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
One of the Apostle Paul's favorite metaphors for the life of faith is that of adoption.
To explain the life of faith, Paul drew on the Roman custom of adoption, a custom that differs significantly from contemporary adoption. Today, adoption is primarily about finding a child a loving family. In Shazam!, we ache for Billy Batson as he spurns the Vazquez' rituals, refusing their offer of love in favor of a fruitless search for a biological mother. But Roman adoption was more about the families involved than the children. Wealthy Roman families required a male heir to pass on the family name and wealth. If they, for any reason, did not have an adult male heir, they adopted from another family. (The most famous Roman adoptee is Gaius Julius Caesar, formerly known as Octavius. He was adopted by Julius Caesar and became Caesar Augustus.) The family providing the son often already had a male heir and could not afford to provide for the younger sons.
Paul makes a profound statement about God's household by claiming that God adopts us into sonship. Roman families who already had an heir didn't adopt more children; it was a waste of resources. But God is a different kind of king. In God's household, there's more than enough to go around, more than enough room for all of us to be God's children. Jesus is happy to share his inheritance with us.
Thus, Paul writes to the Romans that the Spirit of God lives within us and confirms our status as adopted sons and daughters. The Spirit enables us to overcome the flesh, to live in the power of Jesus' resurrection as a new family, an adopted family. A family called the church, against whom Jesus promised not even the gates of hell could stand.
Shazam! embodies this joy, from its whip-smart script to clever storytelling to the bright color palette (a welcome change from the drab aesthetic that has previously characterized the DC movie universe). It's not hard for us as viewers to see that the family that has chosen Billy is a richer reality than the "real" family he's chasing in his head. We ache for him to reach into that circle of prayer, to say yes to the family that’s chosen him.
Perhaps we might reflect on the family that has chosen us, and ask if there are things we are chasing that lie outside of it. Is it possible that, like Billy Batson, our reluctance to reach out a hand to join in the family of faith makes us vulnerable to the sins that prowl our world? If so, perhaps rituals like communion, baptism, and gathering for worship can help us strengthen that familial bond, as the Vazquezes do with their daily prayer.