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The Consolation of Superheroes: Boethius and Sin in Shazam!

Published Monday, November 30, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

In Shazam!, a wizard who holds captive the demons of the Seven Deadly Sins fails to contain them and recruits in desperation Billy Batson, a wayward miscreant who becomes a hero nearly on par with Superman. Shazam’s name is in fact an acronym, the S standing for the wisdom of Solomon. This incorporation of theological themes into the superhero and fantasy genres provides an opportunity to consider Shazam!’s display of imagination through the lens of theistic philosophy. Boethius says that imagination takes “its beginning of seeing and forming shapes from the senses,” deriving new patterns for the mind to reason about in new ways. With this perspective, one can perceive a superhero’s consolation laced through Billy “Shazam” Batson’s origin story.

Choose Your Toys Wisely

Young Thaddeus seeks consolation from his cruel father’s insensitive aphorisms and his older brother’s bullying in a toy, the Magic 8 Ball. When his brother grabs the toy from his hands, Thaddeus asks his father for help, who retorts, “Thad, you can’t go crying to other people all the time. A man needs to know when to stand up for himself.” The fruits of this exercise in bad fathering yield after Thaddeus’s Magic 8 Ball flickers with arcane symbols that transport him to a wizard’s fortress. There the wizard offers him his power if Thad can overcome the temptation of the Seven Deadly Sins, which the boy fails to do, reaching for the Eye of Sin. The wizard casts him out, sending Thad back to the cruel tongue lashings of his father and brother. Worse, as the boy attempts to explain his strange experience in the face of their disbelief, they are involved in a horrific car accident that leaves the father crippled. This grim opening, at first mistakable for the hero’s origin story, turns out to be the villain’s, for it sends Thad into a lifelong, obsessive search for the power denied him by the wise wizard.

By contrast, Billy Batson, also as a young child, finds himself separated from his mother after she wins him a disappointing prize in the form of a compass. As they make their way through the crowd, mother and son are separated, and Billy ends up an orphaned child known for delinquency and mischief. His errant behavior seems to contrast ironically with what his mother had told him about the prize’s value: “Oh, but this is the real prize, baby. See? You can use that your whole life. You’ll always find your way.” Clutching onto that compass as a talisman guiding him in ways more than physical, Billy’s defiant behavior stems simply from efforts to find his mother – his true home.

The contrast of toys, one emphasizing chance and the other a guided path, serves as an aesthetic signal for the story’s meaning that can be underscored when viewed through the lens of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. A Christian theologian, philosopher, pedagogue, and politician, Boethius wrote the Consolation in the wake of an unjust imprisonment with execution imminent, but he was no stranger to loss prior to that – at some unknown time he had been orphaned and adopted by the benevolent Symmachus. Like Billy with his compass, Boethius doubtless found personal comfort over the loss of his parents in a teaching he found in his mentor figure, Lady Philosophy, the idea of the True Home: “You seem to have forgotten what your native country is. It is not a democracy like old Athens… The basic law of your country is that any man who has chosen to live there cannot be banished from within its strong walls and deep moat” (Consolation 1.p5.163). The true home according to Philosophy resides not in where we happen to find ourselves circumstantially but in the proper resting place of the soul: meditating on the love of God. She tells Boethius, “You can return home under my guidance, on my path, and in my carriage…. where the king of kings wields his royal scepter” (4.p1.315-m1.317).

That Billy’s compass serves as a symbolic connection to his mother and his identity connects as well to Lady Philosophy’s assertion to Boethius that his knowledge of astronomy should serve as a guide for his mind to meditate on higher truths than the worldly goods he has lost: “He knew how the evening star of the west appears in the east to announce the morning/and turns through its steady, stately cycles” (1.m2.137). Reminding Boethius of his education in the liberal arts, Lady Philosophy implies here that his former learning should act as a compass – and she, too, serves as a maternal figure, for Boethius recognizes her as his former “nursemaid.”

By contrast, however, Thaddeus’s toy, as a Magic 8 Ball, resonates with one of Boethius’s most famous images: Fortune’s Wheel. Fortune, a fictive construct which Boethius uses as a way to capture the psychological feelings of chaos that stem from a soul unmoored from assurance of God’s love, plays cruel games with the human heart. Lady Philosophy depicts Fortune as speaking this way: “For this is my nature, this is my continual game: turning my wheel swiftly I delight to bring low what is on high, to raise what is down” (2.p2.183). In her definitional commitment to inconsistency, Fortune would love the Magic 8-Ball as a choice of a toy as much as Lady Philosophy would approve of Billy’s compass. This touchpoint becomes all the more relevant in the final battle ground of the movie: a carnival with a Ferris Wheel prominent in the background.

The Weakness of Evil

As Boethius teaches, sin invites with superficial appeal, but monstrosity lurks within it. “The whole concern of men,” says his mentor Lady Philosophy, is “to arrive at one and the same end, that of happiness” (3.p2.233) which men seek in “wealth, honor, power, glory, pleasure” (3.p2.235). Meditating on the desire for each of these goods, Lady Philosophy will go on to teach Boethius that none of them will ultimately satisfy the soul but only act as temporal manifestations of the happiness that can only derive from participation in divine love. Of this summum bonum, the transcendent unity of goodness behind the worldly goods, Lady Philosophy says, “Man’s mind, though the memory of it [the supreme good] is clouded, yet does seek again its proper good, but like a drunken man cannot find by what path it may return home” (3.p2.235). In Boethian terms, sin can thus be understood as a case of mistaken identity: confusing lower order goods for the final resting place of our desire. In their own way, each of the Seven Deadly Sins therefore manifest a longing for temporal goods at the expense of timeless joy.

A symbol for just such a flawed basis of identity in fickle goods, the round Magic 8-Ball resembles physically the circular Eye of Sin that Thaddeus will seek on his ruthless quest for vengeance. Cracking the code on the wizard’s magic, Thad makes his way to the wizard’s lair and takes the Eye of Sin, which he then implants into his right eye. This action evokes the Boethian understanding of the mind of evil men: “For they cannot raise eyes accustomed to darkness to the light of manifest truth” (4.p4.347). Implanting the Eye of Sin scars Thaddeus’s face, in keeping with Boethius’s teaching that evil action most hurts the one who performs it: “For wicked men wickedness is itself the punishment” (4.p3.333). By this very logic, in fact, Thaddeus has the demon of Greed slaughter his own avaricious father.

Thaddeus’s vindictive slaughter of father, brother, and their colleagues debuts his destructive force as a supervillain possessed by the Seven Deadly Sin demons. This would seem to contradict Boethius’s belief that “the ability to do evil is not a power” (4.p2.329). If that were true, then why would the demons make Thaddeus such a deadly force? But in Boethius’s understanding of evil as a privation, cultivating sin cripples our will by making us addicted to its debasing effects. The result is that what we think we do freely is really done in miserable slavery to our sin, even as regards apparently powerful men: “If a man strip from those proud kings the cloak of their empty splendour,/At once he will see these lords within bear close-bound chains;/For there, lust stirs their hearts with poisonous greed,/There anger whips the mind as a whirlwind whips up waves” (4.m2.331). For Boethius, choosing sin devastates the will, and likewise, as the Seven Deadly Sin demons manifest in their first encounter, Billy tells Thad, “I don’t think these things have your best interest at heart.”

Billy too has to learn that merely possessing the power of the wizard does not empower him to be a hero. After the Seven Deadly Sins escaped with Thaddeus to wreak havoc on the world, Billy is brought to Shazam’s citadel by the wizard’s magic after standing up to the bullies of his foster brother, Freddy Freeman. But once the powers of Shazam go to his head, Billy’s actions socially embarrass Freddy and endanger innocent passersby, leading Freddy to tell him, “All this power, and all you did was turn into a showoff and a bully.” Rather than delighting in power for its own sake, Billy learns through Freddy’s friendship Boethius’s teaching that the “man who wants to be powerful/must tame his high spirits,/must not submit his neck, conquered by lust/…./This is no power at all” (3.m5.253).

Indeed, Billy’s observation about the literal demon of Lust accords with Boethius on evil, though it is only a passing quip: “Lust, who I thought was going to be way hotter, if I’m being honest.” In fact, Lust’s elongated, serpentine tongue drips repulsively with saliva from a tooth-rimmed maw, manifesting in its demonic form the same principle of insight Lady Philosophy gave about the real ugliness that lies under the shallow attraction: “would not the superficially very beautiful body of Alcibiades seem most vile when his inwards could be seen?” (3.p7.261). If that is true of the body, it is all the more true of the evil soul, which according to Lady Philosophy is like a kind of undead horror: “For as you would say that a corpse was a dead man, but you could not call it simply a man, so I concede of the viscous that they are indeed evil, but I cannot admit that they are absolutely” (4.2.327).

The weakness of evil men resides in their commitment to a means for happiness which in reality leads to misery, as in Thaddeus’s reliance upon the Demons. Boethius asserts, “I maintain that nothing is good which harms its possessor” (2.4.207). Similar to how Thaddeus destroyed his father with his father’s sin, Billy realizes that Envy is Thad’s vice: “Where’s Envy? …. Like, the other sins, they get to come out and fight ’cause they’re big and strong and scary. But Envy, he’s just a runt. And that’s why all the other sins never invite him out to play, man.” Using Thad’s demon against itself as well as him, Billy strips Thaddeus of his power, leaving him utterly helpless. Unlike Billy who can call upon the power of Shazam at any time, Thaddeus’s power existed at the mercy of his demons. And demons, of course, are without mercy.

The Lair and the Citadel

Time and again Lady Philosophy exhorts Boethius to retreat to the citadel of wisdom that does not rely on happiness from goods which are not inherent to the self: “Wisdom our captain withdraws her forces into the citadel, while our enemies busy themselves ransacking useless baggage” (1.p3.143). Significant then is the wizard’s fortress, protected by his arcane runes, entitled the Rock of Eternity, evoking the citadel of God’s mind: “the divine mind….firmly placed in the citadel of its own simplicity of nature, established the manifold manner in which all things behave” (4.p6.359). Of course, the wizard is not himself God but, like Lady Philosophy, an emissary of a higher authority. Where his mother had given him a compass, Billy receives the ability from Shazam to bear the power of that same authority: “Carry my name and with it, you carry all of my powers.”

Unlike the joy he finds in sharing the secret of his powers with Freddy, Billy’s quest to find his mother ends sadly, with his mother surprised to see him and revealing that she left him intentionally because she believed he would have a better life without her. Realizing that Freddy and his other foster family members already had shown more commitment to him than she had, he places the compass in her hands and says, “I have to get back to my real family now.” The impact of the compass on Billy’s imagination had done its work – he had found the Boethian true family: “Surely you do not think it wholly unimportant that this rough and unpleasant fortune has discovered those friends who are truly loyal to you, and has divided the honest from the dishonest among your companions…..?” (2.p8.225) True friends and family rise above mere circumstance of association, represented in the film by Billy sharing his superpowers as Shazam with his six foster siblings. This demonstrates what Lady Philosophy tells Boethius: “the most sacred kind of good is that of friendship, a good reckoned not a matter of fortune but of virtue” (3.p2.235). Thus the shared joy that results when Billy and his new siblings say of the Rock of Eternity, “We’ve got a lair!”

Boethius shows that the worldly goods’ insufficiency should lead us to understand that “the aims and purposes of men’s acts and prayers” are good only insofar as we place friendship above the temporal goods and above friendship the serenity that comes only from meditating on the still center of Providence. Lady Philosophy prays, “For, to the blessed, you/Are clear serenity, and quiet rest: to see you is their goal,/And you, alone and same,/Are their beginning, driver, leader, pathway, end” (3.m9.275). Shazam! is of course not so didactic, but is punctuated by three prayers around the foster family’s dinner table, two where Billy does not really participate and one where, in fact, he leads: “Thank you for this food. Thank you for this day. Thank you for this family. I thought maybe this time I’d stay. I mean, after all, I’m home.” The virtue of giving thanks in prayer shows that our superhero has found his consolation.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

[1] Boethius discusses this kind of virtue in the context of his wife, sons, and father-in-law Symmachus, making the discussion of virtue-based friendship obtainable even within the ordinary obligations of familial relationship.

Image: Zachary Levi Cast as Shazam! by AntMan3001. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic {{CC BY-SA 2.0}}, cropped by MR.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla