The Shazam! Family is All Foster Families
Box-office and critical problems aside, the ‘Shazam!’ movies offer rare on-screen representation
I’ll start with the fact that I don’t normally like superhero movies.
I have no idea what the difference is between DC and Marvel. I couldn’t list the incarnations of Batman over the years. And I definitely have no clue where the Avengers fit into it all.
I would take a chummy, sugar-sweet Drew Barrymore rom-com or a tragic Stephen King thriller any day over the worlds of Spider-Man, Superman and Ant-Man (apologies to the ever-affable Paul Rudd).
And yet, as I watched “Shazam! Fury of the Gods“ in theater on opening weekend, tears were streaming down my face. Because, for the first time since I became a parent, the family on the screen actually reflected the one with whom I was sharing popcorn.
The franchise focuses on Billy Batson, a truculent foster child who discovers he can turn into an all-powerful superhero by uttering the word “Shazam!” When we meet up with Billy (played in teen form by Asher Angel and in superhero form by Zachary Levi) in the second movie, he has fully embraced his newfound role as a superhero and also as a son to foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) and brother to five foster siblings and fellow superheroes.
From the very first scene, in which Levi’s superhero Billy works through his childhood trauma and abandonment issues with a pediatrician he treats like a therapist, this film spoke to me in a deep and real way.
My husband and I became foster parents eight years ago, and our transracial adoptive family now consists of six kids between the ages of 7 and 14. Typically, film depictions of families like ours deal in stereotypes and simplism, from the white savior tropes of dramas like The Blind Side to the lovable but overly palatable storylines of comedies like Instant Family. The best portrayal I had formerly seen was in the popular NBC TV show, This is Us, but even then, it was only a subplot of a much larger story arc.
Shazam, though, is different. When my kids looked up at the screen, they saw a family that looked a heck of a lot like ours and individual characters who looked a heck of a lot like them. Not only did those characters look like them, but they were, in fact, SUPERHEROES. Who were SAVING THE WORLD.
Representation matters, and so does telling truth. When a young Billy, who is 17, has a frank conversation with his foster sister, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey), about the fact that he will soon age out of foster care, those of us who understand how the system works felt his words and concerns to our core – in the United States, 25 percent of youth who age out of foster care become homeless within two years.
Foster kids, and foster families, are used to living in the shadows in a lonely world frequently colored with pain and crisis that no one can understand unless they’ve walked through it themselves. It is a world where my daughter scrawls angry letters to her birth mother in red marker on lined paper that looks like it’s bleeding. It is a world where, at any moment, I might be blindsided by an explosive tantrum due to a silent trigger I never knew existed in my kids’ lives. For them, it is a world full of revolving doors, half-unpacked suitcases and funhouse mirrors that continue to distort every reality they think they know.
Sure, Shazam had the requisite car chases and explosions and scary monsters you’d expect in a superhero movie. But there were also quiet moments that we could have recorded in our living room. Like a young Billy’s reticence to call his foster mother anything, let alone “Mom.” Or the way that Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) fully and unabashedly embraced his new superhero status and the way that it lied in direct contrast with his normal life as the primary target of the school bullies.
Shazam, however, is not meant be bleak. In fact, in finding a family, Billy Batson finds himself. So much so that he clings, maybe a little too tight, to his newfound family unit. They are “all or none,” as we hear repeatedly in the movie, no matter what.
At one point during the film I was so moved that I wrote the following down in my notebook: “For you, everyone can be worthy. Fight for your family.” The all-knowing wizard delivers that sentiment to a young, under-duress Billy, but it also hits hard for those of us who are foster and adoptive parents.
“Fight for your family” might as well be our mantra. Because all day, every day, that’s what we do, whether we’re fighting for Medicaid coverage or mental health providers or competent caseworkers or inclusion. Every day is exhausting, every day is overwhelming, and every day we still wake up, ready to fight.
The same goes for our kids. They persevere, they persist, and they show strength, even though they shouldn’t have to. And although their brands of trauma are hard and loud and unique, they have each other’s backs, no matter what.
My 14-year-old daughter declared Shazam only superhero franchise she likes. My 11-year-old daughter said she loved every single minute (but especially the ones with Asher Angel). My 10-year-old son said the sequel was even better than the first (which we also loved). And my 7-year-old, well, she especially loved the unicorns.
One of the silliest but also most poignant parts of the movie for me came when Darla, the youngest and most adorable of the Shazam sibling set, decides to combat the monsters who are taking over the city with unicorns to whom she offers Skittles. The Skittles win them over and Darla ultimately rides through the streets of Philadelphia on a unicorn, flanked by her siblings, defeating the monsters and saving the world while yelling, “Taste the rainbow, Mother-f******!”
Our 7-year-old is brilliant, imaginative and outspoken and, yes, a unicorn fanatic. I could easily see her riding a unicorn down the street, just like Darla, screaming “Taste the Rainbow!” while defeating the monsters. She also, as a first-grader, has already experienced frequent racism everywhere from at school to the playground to the soccer fields.
Even when it seems bleak, Shazam and its “fight for your family” and “all or none” themes have given me hope.
Hope that families like mine know that they are seen and worthy.
Hope that every foster kid will have the confidence to ride through the streets yelling, “Taste the Rainbow, Mother-f******!” while fighting the monsters when they need to.
Hope that we always, always fight for family.
And hope that we’ll see more characters like these, the ones who make us feel at home, on the screen in the years to come.