Let's Talk About The Surprise Third Act Of 'Shazam!' And What It Means

Superhero movies rarely hide their climaxes this skillfully. Let's keep it that way. Major spoilers for Shazam! follow.Based on the trailers, Shazam! seems like "Big with superheroes," with the bare presence of a mildly threatening villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong). The actual film certainly fits this description, but it keeps secret some of its most alluring aspects, from Sivana's true nature, to Billy Batson's (Asher Angel) backstory, to a third-act set piece so utterly delightful in concept that it seems too good to be true. And while Shazam! stumbles on its way to the finish, it earns its audaciously conceived climax, ripped straight from the pages of the Golden Age(with updated specifics from more recent comics) and re-created with gusto.  The film's clunky, 1970s prologue sees a young Thaddeus "Thad" Sivana whisked away from his domineering father and a-hole brother by Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), a mysterious wizard in search of "a champion," pure of heart, to protect the word from evil. Shazam's secret realm is composed of an empty semi-circle of thrones — where the wizard's siblings once sat, as humanity's caretakers — and entombed, demonic embodiments of the Seven Deadly Sins. Oh, and a glowing orb that tempts prospective "champions" to power as well. Thad, constantly bullied by his family, reaches for the orb and its promises of vengeance, alerting Shazam to his selfishness; a champion he is not.Fast-forward several decades and cocky foster-teen Billy Batson is put to a similar test. Though by the time he's recruited, he's a last resort. In the forty-year interval, Sivana has obsessively searched for the Wizard's realm. Upon finding it, he absorbs the power of the orb (it now resides in his eye) and the demonic Sins now use his body as a host. In his desperation, Shazam rewards Billy's solitary act of heroism — saving his foster brother Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) from bullies — by granting him the powers of an adult superhero (Zachary Levi), whose form Billy takes by speaking the wizard's name. (The hero, formerly Captain Marvel in the comics, isn't given his own moniker)Shazam — again, the wizard, not the superhero — inadvertently grants Sivana and Billy a common origin. However the film doesn't treat Billy's ascension to this heroic mantle as an actual ascent to heroism. Rather, it's an opportunity for him to overcome his own selfishness and grow into a hero's shoes (Sivana, in comparison, is tragic, having never been presented with that same chance). Billy bounces from group home to group home while searching for his long-lost mother, and in the process, he alienates anyone who tries to get close to him.This includes the firecracker Freddie Freeman, Billy's disabled bunk-mate, who has a particular interest in superheroes in a world where the likes of Aquaman and Superman really exist. Freddie is one of five fellow foster-kids at Billy's new home, along with Eugene Choi, Mary Bromfield, Pedro Peña and Darla Dudley; comic readers might recognize them as the new "Marvel Family" introduced in DC's Flashpoint series in 2011 (though Freddie and Marve have been around much longer). During the climax, once Billy decides to love his found family as much as his biological one, he figures out a way to enlist their help, turning them into adult superheroes as well in order to fight Sivana and the Seven Sins.The moment works in isolation (and how!), as Billy crystalizes the film's central theme by asking Sivana "What good is power if you have no one to share it with?" Though, despite the Marvel Fmaily's rousing arrival, their actual involvement in the climax ends up underwhelming. While adult Darla zips around like her energetic child self, the other heroes are shouldered with minor tasks like stopping a ferris wheel from tipping over (oddly, Mary doesn't partake in the action at all). The adult Freddie (Adam Brody) is given the opportunity to save his own bullies, but this vital character beat is rendered little but a background moment amidst the stilted bombast.There's joy and wonder in seeing this version of the Family come to life, though the action itself is awkward; each beat feels extended, like not enough footage was trimmed on either side of each punch, and so the scene frequently loses momentum. Add to that the characters achieving their "full potential" in the form of fat characters conforming to a comicbook-muscular ideal and Freddie shedding his crutch, like his disability is an imperfection, and the film's otherwise positive messaging feels ever-so-slightly retrograde.Still, the climax feels like the perfect puzzle-piece on paper. The heroes battle Sivana's demons, both literal — the hellish grey blobs that spring forth from his eye — and metaphorical, since the Sins are manifestations of hostility, taking advantage of the learned hatred built up inside him by a tough-love, barely affectionate family. In contrast, the familial bonds between the foster kids allow them a kind of Godhood, wherein love isn't just a motivation, but a glowing extension of self, externalized as heroic physicality and used in service of others.Sivana is eventually defeated as Billy coaxes the final Sin, "Envy" out from behind his eye, leaving him vulnerable by exposing his deepest insecurities. With his Family behind him, Billy is virtually invincible. Though after Sivana is incapacitated, there's a strange sense of forgetfulness, wherein the film never returns to capture the tragedy of Sivana, a man driven toward evil by loneliness and neglect. The narrative never allows the heroes and the villain to reflect on each other's circumstances; a vital point, given the ways in which Billy and Sivana are connected by fate (and by what could have been), and a missed opportunity for the film to truly elucidate its point about the power of familial bonds.However, what separates the finale in Shazam! from most films of its ilk (see: most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is that its climactic action doesn't feel incidental. Rather, the heroic arrival of Billy's family is an extension of his story, since they spend the third act saving people from Sivana's demons. The Family's powers seem to extend from Billy's, but they're placed on an equal footing, while Sivana's new "family" feeds off him and manipulates him into violence. Rather than simply existing parallel to one another, might and togetherness go hand-in-hand in Shazam!, playing out in the form of a giddy romp where even power fantasy — so often dramatized as violence — is imbued with childlike innocence.