Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens on the titular hero confessing his imposter syndrome.
Shazam, you may remember, is teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who two years ago was bequeathed the power of Shazam. When he says that magic word, he transforms into a superpowered, fully grown superhero (Zachary Levi). But he's still just a kid inside, one who feels like a fraud.
Who can't relate to that? Particularly in our current moment, how many of us feel inadequate in the face of God's calling to tend and keep the world?
In the first Shazam! film, we witness Billy become worthy of the powers he wields by choosing his foster family. Billy realizes that the thing he wants to find more than anything in the world—a family—has already found him. Shazam! Fury of the Gods finds Billy afraid to lose what he's found—so he's tightened his grip. His foster siblings (who share the Shazam powers) find Billy's constant monitoring and haranguing tedious. They don't see him as a leader. Billy is afraid they're right.
So it doesn't help that the Daughters of Atlas (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler) descend on Philadelphia, bent on retrieving power stolen from them by the same wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who gave Billy his powers. SHAZAM, as it turns out, is more than a magic word. It's an acronym: the wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules; the stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus; the courage of Achilles; and the speed of Mercury. All of these powers have been stolen by the wizard. The Daughters of Atlas see Billy as a human child, unworthy of such gifts. They see him as an insecure child who knows he's in over his head, someone who isn't worthy of the power with which he's been entrusted. And they're not wrong.
In Fury of the Gods, Billy finds himself at the same crossroads any believer faces after the post-conversion “honeymoon” phase wears off. Maybe it's the first time an old, sinful habit rears its head, a monster we thought vanquished still alive and threatening. Maybe it's the first time an earnestly offered prayer meets only silence. Maybe it's the betrayal or abuse of a faith leader who was instrumental in planting or watering the seeds of our faith. Whatever it is, something rocks us and we're faced with our own inadequacy. This liberation we've found seems shakier than we thought once the storms of life blow in.
Our wavering faith gives credence to those doubting voices, which insist we're not worthy of adoption into God's family. It's not uncommon for believers experiencing such doubt to react as Billy does in this movie: to cling more tightly to faith through legalism and religiosity. What Billy experiences is the opposite of what he wants; the tighter he clings to his found family, the more he feels them slipping away. (One can almost hear echoes of Paul in Romans 7, where he laments that “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
Fury of the Gods finds Billy afraid to lose what he's found — so he's tightened his grip.
The first Shazam! modeled sanctification—the part of salvation that comes after conversion. Billy wasn't worthy and couldn't face the Seven Deadly Sins until after he had accepted his found family. The love of his adopted family made him worthy. Similarly here, Billy remains an imposter until he lets go. (Spoilers ahead.) In a scene that left not a dry eye in my theater, Billy's foster mom Rosa (Marta Milan, offering a powerful, tender performance) asks to see “the real you.” Billy transforms back into his 17-year-old self and hugs her, promising he won't make the family “keep” him when he turns 18 and ages out of the foster system in a few months. Rosa shushes Billy and hugs him tight—more tightly even than Billy has been holding on to his siblings—and tells him that he is her son forever.
This is, again, the transformational moment for Billy. Once he finally lets go, he finds that he is held more tightly than he could imagine by a love deeper than he had dared to hope for. Armed with this confidence, he soars off to save the day. And in the face of the power he now exhibits, Hespera (Helen Mirren) can only confess in awe, "Now that is a god!"
The parallels to our journey of sanctification are powerful. When we cling too tightly to our faith, we can choke the life out of it, suffocating our faith—and possibly the faith of others—in legalism. We forget that our adoption had nothing to do with our worth in the first place. Or, perhaps better said, our worth had nothing to do with us. What makes us worthy of God's love is that we are God's beloved creation, God's own children. God has declared us adopted into God's own family, making a path to adoption for us, through Christ, while we were yet sinners (Paul in Romans again).
When we can relax our death grip on faith, we find ourselves held by a love far greater than we could have asked or imagined. It's our willingness to let go and trust that God has us, that God will never let go, that makes it possible for the breath of the Holy Spirit to fill our lungs and bring us ever deeper into the divine mystery.