(Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for the Shazam! 2019 film.)
“Heroes are ordinary people who make themselves extraordinary.” -Gerard Way
If you are looking for a movie packed with action, humor, and a heartfelt storyline then you may just find it in Shazam! This superhero movie released in April 2019 is based upon the DC Comics character of the same name. It showcases the usual superpowers, special effects, and heroic action, but perhaps the best part of the movie is its underlying theme. It’s not often that Hollywood portrays foster families in movies. This film pays homage to the struggles and the triumphs of one such family.
Shazam! follows Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel), a teenage boy who has been bounced around from one foster home to another. He is intent on finding his birth mother even if it gets him into trouble. Unfortunately, they were separated when he wandered off at the carnival as a small child. He has searched far and wide to find her but continues to come up empty-handed. This struggle is very realistic; given only a last name and a basic demographic—the search for biological families can be quite difficult.
Billy’s frustration and longing is apparent. He has an overwhelming need to find his home, his family. The only tie he has to his birth mother is a carnival prize: a small compass. He remembers her saying that with this compass, he would always find his way. Even small gifts and trinkets can hold great importance when they’re all that you’ve got.
Billy (like many children in foster care) keeps himself guarded. He doesn’t want to get too attached, and he runs away from each home he is placed in. Because he is a flight risk (and a bit hard to handle), the families he has been staying with have no interest in bringing him back into their homes. Because of this, he has learned to be very self-reliant; he doesn’t want to depend on anyone else.
When Billy finds himself in his newest foster home, he expects more of the same. This will be just another pit stop on his journey to find his birth mother. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that this home isn’t like the rest. His life is about to change in a big way.
He is taken in by Victor and Rosa Vasquez (played by Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans respectively). They were once children in foster care themselves, and they opened their home to help other kids in similar situations. They are patient, understanding, and determined to make a difference in the lives of the children in their care. They are a great model of how influential and kind foster parents should be. They also show how we can take difficult moments in our own lives and use them to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
While these characters don’t get an incredible amount of screen time, it is nice to see foster parents portrayed in a positive light. My only concern with these characters is that they don’t seem to know what the children are up to at times. The children do an awful lot of adventuring over the course of the film, and the viewer is left to wonder how the parents haven’t noticed.
Many people have a belief that they can’t foster children because their home isn’t big enough, they are too old or too young, they aren’t highly educated, etc. This movie shows that it doesn’t really matter if you have a fancy home or a high income. What is really needed is a desire to help others and an understanding that it may not always be easy. Fostering is something the average person CAN do.
Billy is the newest of six children in the home. The children vary widely in age, race, and personality, but they seem to be a pretty close-knit family. The film does a wonderful job of portraying the diversity of children who may find themselves in foster care. It also addresses some of the issues and struggles that are common among children who have had to endure leaving one family and joining another.
Darla Dudley (played by Faithe Herman) is the youngest of the children. She is full of energy and quite loving. She embraces Billy as her brother as soon as he arrives. This seems to make Billy a bit uncomfortable, and he hurts her feelings by letting her know that the feeling isn’t mutual. She is a little bitty girl, but her heart and her personality are enormous. She craves family and togetherness. She needs to have a sense that she belongs.
Mary Bromfield (played by Grace Fulton) is the oldest child. She is kind and caring. She is excited about the possibility of attending college in the near future, but she is also a bit nervous. She is about to age out of the foster care system and will be on her own for the first time. She still needs guidance, and she may be struggling with the idea of having to leave a family. Again. She plays almost a motherly role to the younger children in the household.
Eugene Choi (played by Ian Chen) has a passion for gaming. He is into all things technological. He is quite intelligent.
Pedro Peña (played by Jovan Armand) is a quiet boy. He comes across as quite shy. He doesn’t have much to say to Billy or to anyone else in the family. Perhaps he has become disengaged in order to protect his emotional state.
Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer) is closest in age to Billy and attempts to befriend him immediately. He has a disability and is bullied by a couple of kids at school. He has a great sense of humor, and he has an obsession with superheroes. His character is very likeable.
With the help of his new foster siblings, Billy is able to track down his birth mother. The dreams of a happy reunion he had once had are dashed when he learns that he hadn’t actually been lost. In fact, his birth mother hadn’t been searching for him at all. The day they were separated, she felt that she was unable to care for him and decided to let him go. She had no interest in being involved in his life anymore, and we get the sense that her own life has continued to be a troubled one.
The blow that this must have been to Billy’s emotional state was almost tangible. His tough exterior never falters as the walls he has built to protect himself stand strong. The whole time he had been blaming himself for running off at the carnival. Once he learns the truth, he is able to let go of a bit of the guilt, and hopefully, he realizes that he is in his current situation through no fault of his own. Billy’s birth mother isn’t mentioned again throughout the rest of the movie, but the viewer may be left to wonder how this will affect Billy in the future. For the film’s sake, however, he seems to let go fairly easily even though he is obviously let down.
As a birth mother myself, I was not thrilled with the representation of Billy’s biological mother in this movie. We get the sense that even though she felt that she was doing what was best for Billy at the time that in the present day she doesn’t really care that he has found her. She doesn’t show much emotion at all. She doesn’t even remember the compass that has been guiding him “home” all along. While every situation is unique (and there are many cases that may be similar to this one), I wish they had shown her with a bit more compassion.
When Billy finds himself mysteriously transported into an underground lair, he has no clue what is about to happen. He is greeted by a wizard who ultimately transforms him into Shazam—a superhero and full-grown man! His mission is to take down Thaddeus Sivana (a villain with his own family troubles), who has unleashed the seven deadly sins back into the world. Billy isn’t sure how to be an adult OR a superhero. Luckily, his new foster sibling Freddy knows everything there is to know about superheroes and the powers they are likely to possess. There is quite a bit of trial and error as well as some humorous moments as Billy takes advantage of his new powers and adult privileges.
Still unsure of his mission or his purpose, Billy uses his newfound identity as a means to make money and gain popularity. The fame seems to be going to his head and he appears to forget about helping anyone else—even Freddy. Billy’s typical “every man for himself” lifestyle causes him quite a bit of trouble, and he realizes that perhaps he needs to depend on the help of the other kids in his household. Being a hero is a big responsibility. Fighting villains is hard work!
As Billy discovers who he is as a superhero, he also learns a lot about who he is as a person. For once, he finds himself relying on the help of others. While I don’t want to give away too much of how this movie ends, let’s just say that Billy learns the importance of family as the walls come down, and he learns that it’s okay to love and to be loved. Home is where you make it. Family is where you belong. Biological, adoptive, foster—the title doesn’t matter—family is family and what a blessing it is to have one.
The differences between the villain and the hero in this movie show that regardless of your past, regardless of where you come from or what you have been through—you ultimately have the power to choose your destiny. It can build you or it can break you. There is a hero inside each one of us, just waiting to be discovered. Shazam! will be available for purchase on DVD on July 16, 2019.
The portrayals of foster care and adoption in movies haven’t always been so positive. One of the most memorable group home foster moms is Miss Hannigan, from the 1982 classic Annie. Most of us love Carol Burnett’s antics as the lonely, drunken, disheveled, and overwhelmed woman raising a house full of young girls, but she certainly wouldn’t win any awards for mother of the year! In the media, foster parents have often been shown in a similar light: mean and money hungry. Otherwise, they are shown on the complete opposite side of the spectrum: saints who can do no wrong. Perfect people who save children from the evils of their birth family. The truth is most foster parents are somewhere in the middle; they are just normal people with a heart for helping others. While nobody is perfect, a vast majority of foster parents are doing the best they can, and they aren’t in it for the money. Their actions are driven by the best of intentions even when situations are less than desirable.
The portrayal of children in the foster care system has also been skewed over time. These children are often shown as juvenile delinquents with smart mouths and criminal records. Other times, they are shown as completely helpless and meek. While there are exceptions, most children fall somewhere in the middle as well. They have human qualities like anyone else. They may have some health issues or behavioral problems, and they may not. They are just like any other child you might meet; their living situation and family dynamic is just a bit different at the moment.
Once in a while, Hollywood gets it right. Realistic people, realistic expectations, and realistic life challenges help to normalize the reality of foster families. In addition to being heartwarming, this movie is also pretty hilarious and action-packed. If you are looking for an enjoyable PG-13 movie to watch with the family, take this one into consideration.
Have you seen Shazam!? What were your thoughts on how this movie portrayed foster parents, children in foster care, and Billy’s birth mother? Do you feel that more mainstream movies should include adoption and foster family dynamics? How does this movie represent the foster care system as compared to other shows/movies that you have seen? I would love to hear your thoughts!