WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Shazam!, in theaters now.
From the very beginning, Shazam (or Captain Marvel, as he was first known) has been about family. An orphan left to fend for himself, young Billy Batson used magic to become not only a hero, but also an inspiration. He has shared that power with friends and loved ones in order to form a family of his own. In Warner Bros.' Shazam!, Billy gets separated from his parents, and is sent into foster care. That comes straight from the comics, but a few changes, and a shocking reveal in the film's third act, drastically alter the character's concept of family.
Does it work in the movie? That should be left for the viewer to decide, but it's worth exploring how it changes Shazam and his familial legacy.
Siblings No More
In traditional comic book continuity, the Batson family includes four members: Billy Batson, his twin sister Mary, and their parents. Although their parents die, the two kids cling together to eventually form a new family. While most of DC's Shazam comics have kept that element intact, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's relaunch during the New 52 changed everything.
Mary Batson became Mary Bromfield, and the two are no longer biologically related. Because the movie adapts large chunks of this comic book run, Mary is the much older foster sister of Billy and the other kids. Instead of being equals in their trauma, and sharing a familial connection, Mary is now the college-bound leader of the group.
As a result, Mary no longer plays as prominent a role in the life of Billy Batson or his superhero alter ego. While she gains superpowers with the rest of the Shazam Family near the end of the film, she essentially becomes lost in the crowd with longtime friend Freddy Freeman, as Pedro, Eugene and Darla make their film debuts.
Whatever Happened to the Batson Family?
Shazam! goes even further to shake up Billy's family dynamic by introducing a completely different fate for his parents. The film establishes that Billy is the only child of a single mother. The two become separated at a fair, and his mother is never found. Billy spends the entire movie looking for his lost family, only to have everything flipped upside down.
When he finally does find his mother, he learns she actually abandoned him at the fair all those years ago. As a young mother with no ability to care for her child, she allowed the police to take Billy into custody, and assumed he would be better off. On top of that, it's revealed his father is in prison, and never showed any interest in having a son.
While this realization helps to teach Billy that the family he was seeking was right in front of him, it completely breaks the family dynamic present in the comics. The character traditionally comes from a happy family before the death of his parents brings his life into chaos.
In the 1991 graphic novel The Power of Shazam!, writer and artist Jerry Ordway reveals the mysterious stranger who led Billy onto the magical subway train to the Wizard was actually his father. In that way, Billy's family played something of an active role in guiding him from struggling orphan to successful hero.
Why This Change Matters
By changing Billy's relationship with his family, Shazam! fundamentally alters the moral of the story. This is no longer about a family sticking together no matter how bad things get; it's about finding family where you least expect it. Having Mary be an older girl with no special connection to Billy places the film's main character in a new position. He no longer has a twin sister with whom to share his pain; he is utterly alone until he accepts the love he finds in foster care.
So many superheroes have tragic backstories in which they take the lessons they have learned from deceased loved ones and apply them to their new lives. Billy has the same tragic history that Batman and Spider-Man have, but the revelation about his parents would be like if Bruce Wayne learned his mother and father didn't really love him.
Instead of relying on the legacy left behind by someone like Uncle Ben, or Thomas and Martha Wayne, Billy is in uncharted waters. He has cast out the shadow of biology and replaced it with a freedom that comes with choosing your own legacy. There's nothing wrong with this rejection of elements out of our control, but it may leave some longtime fans a bit disoriented.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Shazam! stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, Zachary Levi as Shazam, Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, Djimon Hounsou as the ancient wizard Shazam, Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield, Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, Ian Chen as Eugene Choi, Jovan Armand as Pedro Peña, Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley, Cooper Andrews as Victor Vásquez, and Marta Milans as Rosa Vásquez.