More than anything else, the theme of Shazam! and it’s soon-to-debut sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, is family. It’s something the character of Billy Batson has always embodied since his initial adventures in the 1940s. Billy, Mary Bromfield and Freddie Freeman used to make up the trio once known as the Marvel Family, through their alter egos of Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr. (later, simply CM3) and Mary Marvel. Today, the superhero names have evolved and Billy’s family has expanded to include several brothers and sisters, all living together in the blended family of the Vasquez household. And yet, of all of Billy’s siblings, none stand out quite like the youngest member of his family—Darla Dudley.
When Billy Batson gets taken in by Victor and Rosa Vasquez, he becomes their household’s sixth foster child. Being products of adopted families themselves, the couple hope that Billy will take to his new foster family with a sense of community and shared experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as Billy’s life as a runaway and troubled kid doesn’t exactly mesh with the quirky sensibilities of his siblings. Pedro is shy, Eugene is antisocial and Freddie talks too much. But the loudest and most excitable member of the family is young Darla. A grade-school African American girl with big glasses, Darla loudly greets Billy with the biggest yell and the tightest hug during their first scene together in Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Shazam comic. No one is happier to gain another brother than she is.
Unfortunately, Billy’s less than interested in being anyone’s big brother. He quickly and rudely informs Darla that none of them are a real family, which sends his young foster sister into a sobbing fit. Big sister Mary grabs Billy by the collar, telling him that Darla isn’t orphaned from a set of dead parents. She was abandoned, and her mother and father weren’t shy about letting her know she wasn’t wanted. Along with Billy, we immediately learn why Darla’s so attached to the prospect of a family and how that informs her young outlook on life.
As sad as Billy might have made her, by morning Darla has forgotten the whole thing. She’s happy to walk to school with Billy and is more than impressed when he defends her and the others from some school bullies. She starts looking up to him, believing Billy’s a better person than how he may act at times.
This faith is rewarded later on, when Billy has been transformed into the super-powered champion Shazam. Freddie tells the kids that Billy is being hunted by Black Adam, who eventually takes everyone hostage and demands that Billy relinquish his power. Billy—remembering that the Wizard Shazam told him that family is what it can be, not should be—quickly turns his power onto his five brothers and sisters, and in a scene recreated in the first Shazam movie, gifts them all with the powers of Shazam. Darla is aged up to an adult body, complete with a purple lightning-charged costume and the speed of Mercury and flight.
Delighted by her new superheroic ability, Darla gleefully helps Billy and the others defeat Black Adam and protect the city together as a new kind of family.
As a superhero, Darla’s not all that different from how she is as a kid. She still exudes optimism and positivity, even hoping for the best for criminals when she apprehends them. Her sunny outlook also helps keep heads cool in Johns’ follow-up Shazam series when the Shazam Family finds itself lost in a series of strange and mysterious worlds called the Seven Magic Lands.
Cut off from their connection to the Shazam magic and separated from the rest of the family, Darla and Freddie are hunted and captured in the Wildlands, a world in which animals rule and being human is a crime punishable by death. Although she’s thrown into a cage, Darla is overjoyed to find herself in a world with talking bears and dogs, not believing they could mean her any harm. It isn’t until she and Freddie are sentenced to death in a literal Kangaroo Court that she begins to worry for their safety. Luckily, Billy and Mary arrive just in time to keep her faith in her family alive.
As a superhero, Darla has continued to have adventures at the largest scale and has even met the Justice League. From assisting the world’s other heroes in battling Dr. Manhattan in Doomsday Clock to getting a lesson in flying from none other than Wonder Woman, her life has been precisely the sort of life that so many young children her age daydream about. With her magical found family by her side and her cheery, childlike outlook on life, Darla’s definitively one of the most hopeful heroes in the entire DC Universe.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods, starring Zachary Levi and directed by David F. Sandberg, hits theaters March 17th. Visit our official Shazam! Fury of the Gods page to buy tickets and catch up on all of the latest news, trailers and more!
Donovan Morgan Grant writes about comics, graphic novels and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @donoDMG1.