I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Shazam! The trailers seemed a bit ridiculous, and I found the character sort of grating in Young Justice. However, my fears were unfounded; Shazam! was a delightful, sentimental superhero flick that is exactly what the doctor ordered for DC. Between Wonder Woman‘s devotion to earnest, hopeful narratives and Aquaman‘s refusal to shy away from the inherent oddity of the narrative, Shazam! fits perfectly with the current stars of the DCEU.
There’s a lot to love about the film (and some things to critique, but more on those later), but I keep circling back to the emotional heart of it all. Billy Batson starts the film by looking for his mother, and in the end finds the home he wants with his foster family. The search for belonging isn’t a new plot for films, especially superhero films, but the way it’s handled is far more fixed on the idea of Billy finding a family rather than on Billy coming into his own alone.
**Spoilers for Shazam! to follow.**
First and foremost, as several critics have pointed out, it’s powerful to see a foster family that’s portrayed as a positive place full of love. Comics writer Gail Simone nailed why a bumper sticker reading “my superpower is being a foster mom” mattered so much to so many audience members.
Which leads me to my favorite aspect, the family. I’m adopted AND a foster parent. This stuff is rarely handled well. But I cried at the bumper sticker, that’s how they nailed the family element. The BUMPER sticker. 21/
— GAIL SIMONE Thinks the Punisher Should Smile More (@GailSimone) April 8, 2019
The family in the film is amazing. Both Vazquez parents are loving and wonderful, without being total pushovers. It’s clear how much they care for their family and want the best for all their children, even if Billy rejects them at first. They talk about home being a place that you choose, rather than a place where you live.
Billy is given unconditional support when he joins the Vazquez family, and gets support (and some well-deserved lectures) from Freddie, his roommate and closest friend. Freddie helps ground Billy and remind him of what really matters: using your powers for good and for helping people. Freddie, with his love of the Justice League and his own desire to be a hero, is just as much the protagonist as Billy.
Towards the end of the film, Billy does find his mother, only to find out that she gave him up willingly. He leaves, then, with the intention of saving his real family, because “what good is a hero if you can’t protect your family?” This is a key moment, because a lot of superhero films love to either fridge family members or have their heroes become loners by choice to keep people safe.
Batman has only had Robin in a couple of films; most films eschew the Batfamily. Superman flies solo. Bucky spends more time as the Winter Soldier than Steve’s sidekick. But Billy? He doesn’t have to face the villain alone.
One of the best parts of Shazam is the Shazam family. Billy is told by the Wizard before he gets his powers that opening his heart will make him stronger, and so he does, by sharing his powers with his siblings, who are also transformed into superheroes. Together, they are able to defeat the villains.
As I said above, most heroes fly solo, or find that their grief or pain or loneliness motivates them, ultimately, but that’s not Billy. His courage and strength came from opening up his heart, letting his family in, and trusting them to have his back. He gets the family he deserves, and in turn, his family is able to understand and help him move on and grow.
The last scene of the film isn’t Billy zooming around the skies, powerful and ready to take on the world. It’s him helping Freddie by showing up at lunch as Shazam with Superman in tow. Whether this teases that Billy is now part of the Justice League or not, I cannot say, but it’s a great ending because it shows Billy’s greatest strength: his heart and his love for his family.
Billy doesn’t need the Justice League, though. The League needs Billy, because if we’re being honest, the Shazam family does a team who functions as a collection of oddball loners better than both the League and the Avengers. While the League was a hodgepodge of rewrites and the Avengers have fought more than they’ve been friends, the Shazam family has the potential to really emphasize the power of togetherness and friendship in a way previous superhero teams did not.
The hope of a team and a hero finding his strength through others isn’t revolutionary, but Shazam! presents a joyful look at heroism. You don’t have to be a loner or shut yourself off to protect others; you can be a hero and have a family who uplifts you, as well.
There are plenty of criticisms of the movie’s portrayal of body positivity (check out this piece by Jacob Hall) and disability (see this piece by Kristen Lopez), and I’m sure plenty of discussions will be had about whether the film and the Seven Deadly Sins are a bit too scary for youthful audiences, as the director’s horror background clearly shows through.
However, overall, it’s a fun and uplifting watch. Sign me up for this version of the DCEU.
(image: Warner Bros.)
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