How Shazam Solves the "Worthy Hero" Problem
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
Shazam may seem like just a fun superhero movie, but it actually fixes a long problematic trope in Hollywood films: The "Worthy Hero" trope.
(Spoilers for movies Shazam, Aladdin, Thor, and Avengers: Age of Ultron below)
The "Worthy Hero" trope is where the story's protagonist gets chosen to get his great powers great destiny because he is morally superior to everyone else. The movie confirms the character's moral superiority beyond dispute because the one conferring the destiny or powers is magical and therefore can't be wrong when it chooses the protagonist as worthy.
Aladdin is a good example of this. The Cave of Wonders will only finds one person worthy in all of Arabia to walk within its walls: Aladdin, who's "worth lies far within... a diamond in the rough". Thor is another example. Thor's father Odin enchants Tor's hammer to only be lifted by someone who is worthy. Dozens and dozens of people try to lift the hammer, but none of them can. Only Thor, after learning some important life lessons, can lift it.
The problem is, these movies never explain why these characters are worthy of these gifts and other people aren't. What exactly makes Aladdin morally superior to everyone else in Agrabah? Yes, he gives other poor people some bread. But are we seriously supposed to believe there's nobody else in that town who gives to the poor or sacrifices for others in the kingdom? And what about Thor? What exactly makes Thor more worthy than anyone else to wield the hammer? Or even more worthy than he was at the beginning of the story when the hammer is cursed? He becomes worthy of the hammer when he chooses to sacrifice himself to stop the monstrous Destroyer armor. The thing is, lots of people are willing to sacrifice their lives for others. Does that mean lots of people can lift Thor's hammer? What about the other Avengers? All of them have been willing to sacrifice their lives on multiple occasions. And yet, in Age of Ultron, none of them could lift Thor's hammer. (Except one, and that one might have a loophole.) If anyone was most morally worthy of lifting Thor's hammer it would be Captain America--even more so than Thor.
But Shazam solves this problem by finally admitting that finding a pure hero is impossible. In Shazam, the wizard spends decades trying to find a hero who is "pure of heart" who he can make a champion to fight the Seven Deadly Sins. We see that he seeks out countless people and tests them but they all are unworthy. Every single person he has tested for several decades has been unable to pass his tests. Finally, it is too late: the Seven Deadly Sins are let loose on the world. We are introduced to Billy Batson and we think the story is going to present him to us as the "worthy character" who is "pure of heart" to take on the mantle. However, the story subverts this by showing us very plainly through many instances that Billy is decidedly not more pure than anyone else. He is selfish, rebellious, single-mindedly obsessed with his own goals and desires. He does behave heroically to save his friend Freddy. But he is certainly not better than the vast majority of other people on the planet.
This comes to a head when The Wizard offers his powers to Billy. Billy points out to him what everyone is thinking when he tells the wizard that he is not pure of heart. The Wizard replies he has no choice but to choose Billy because The Wizard is out of options.
This is the real-world answer to the "worthy hero" problem. In the real world, there are no pure-hearted heroes. When the US fought Nazi Germany the US was still keeping African-Americans in segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs. You can search forever and never find someone totally good. Yet, evil still exists and someone has to fight them, so someone has to step up and use their powers to battle evil when they are called upon to. That is what heroes are: flawed people who answer the call to stop evil.
Shazam might be overlooked as just a fun superhero comedy. But it is one of the few movies I've seen to so cleverly and profoundly subvert such an old but typically uncontested cliche. And that elevates it to something surprisingly profound.