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Comic books attract readers and fans with stories of ordinary people becoming extraordinary heroes. For Spanish actress Marta Milans, who plays the stepmother of six children in the new Warner Bros. movie “Shazam!”, superheroes have pushed comic books beyond larger-than-life stunts and epic fights to tell meaningful stories about diversity within a bigger, worldwide family.
“The fact that comic books and comic book movies have such an impact globally, it’s important that they continue telling stories about diversity,” Milans told NBC News in an interview. “The more they normalize diversity, the more people from different backgrounds can see themselves as being as important as Superman.”
“Shazam!” — which opens Friday — was created as a comic book character one year after “Superman” in 1939, and tells the story of a 14-year-old foster kid named Billy Batson who can transform into an adult superhero by saying one magic word.
The word “shazam” is often compared with the popular magic word “abracadabra,” and can mean “instant transformation.” But in the comic book, it is an acronym made up of the names of six immortal elders from whom Batson gets his powers — Solomon (wisdom), Hercules (strength), Atlas (stamina), Zeus (power), Achilles (courage), and Mercury (speed).
Batson is a street-smart kid who has a hard life bouncing between foster families until a wizard suddenly grants him the ability to become Shazam. But behind this superhero trope is a deeper emotional story about a boy who spends most of his young life looking for his mom. And even when he is transformed into Shazam, he doesn’t fulfill his superhero potential until he connects with his foster family.
“It’s easy to get caught up in all the action and flying,” Milans told NBC News. “But ultimately, at the heart of this movie is a very different message. This is the story of a kid who becomes Shazam and has all these powers. But at the end of the day, he is a kid who wants to find a home.”
“Shazam!” filmmaker David F. Samburg said at a recent screening in New York that he wanted to capture that “fun sense of adventure” from the 1980s movies such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Gremlins,” and “The Goonies.” Viewers who grew up in that decade cannot avoid comparing the goofy child-turned-adult superhero played by Zachary Levi in “Shazam!” with Tom Hanks, who similarly played a 12-year-old boy-turned-adult in the 1988 fantasy comedy “Big.”
"Shazam!" is the latest in the slew of superhero movies that have become a multibillion-dollar industry, producing one of highest-grossing movie franchises of all time.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and “Black Panther” made $18.5 billion worldwide: By comparison, the "Star Wars" franchise earned $9.3 billion, and "Harry Potter" brought in $9.2 billion.
Other superhero franchises like X-Men made $5.8 billion; and the DC Extended Universe, which includes “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” netted $4.9 billion.
Creating a global family
On screen, “Shazam!” compels viewers to look at superheroes through the eyes of excited children so that they can find the empathy and love that is needed to make a real-life home. Off screen, comic book movies are using a similar core of values to organize different groups of fans into one extended global family.
These family values resonate with the Mexican-Salvadorian actor Jovan Armand, who plays Pedro Peña, one of Batson’s foster brothers, in “Shazam!” He told NBC News that the comics he read, and the experience of acting in the movie made him feel connected on and off screen.
“I grew up as an only child and didn’t have that family experience,” Armand said. “But ‘Shazam!’ taught me that you don’t have to be blood-related to feel like you belong. I could relate to the characters in the movie and the actors as my friends.”
Since Superman made his first comic book appearance in 1938, superheroes have become tall tent poles under which many different stories are fitting in — just like diversity is increasingly driving different cultures and backgrounds together.
“As a cast, we come from so many different cultures that it creates a more relatable tone in the movie,” Armand said. “Kids from different backgrounds can see our foster family and imagine themselves on the big screen.”