Shazam! The Sunny Side of the DCEU
A less intense superhero adventure filled with a lot of laughs
This past spring the tidal flood of comic book films finally reached critical pressure when we had four, count them four, superhero films playing in theaters at the same time. First, we saw the long-anticipated Captain Marvel finally arrive in theaters on March 8th. DC’s Shazam! flew into theaters on April 5th, followed closely by the Hellboy reboot and then on April 26th the world finally got the feverishly anticipated Avengers: Endgame. What’s more, in a perfect (or perfectly planned) twist of fate, two of these films, Captain Marvel and Shazam! sort of share the Captain Marvel moniker, or at least did up until the original Captain Marvel was forced to change his name to Shazam in the early seventies so as not to be confused with Marvel’s Kree superhero.
Now that the eighty-year-old icon Shazam has his own film, which I’ve seen twice, I figured I’d share my thoughts about it and my hopes and fears for the continued success of the DCEU. Spoilers will be very light considering that I’m not giving a review of the film per se but primarily exploring the overall tone and feel of the film in relation to and as a result of what came before in the DCEU. I’ll be looking at the film as both a nice and necessary (at least in the eyes of the masses) departure from the DCEU’s overall more grounded tone as well as a bittersweet reminder of the enormous potential sacrificed in order to get us to this point.
The style and tone of the DCEU films have a clear dividing line and that is 2017’s dismally underwhelming Justice League. That same year’s Wonder Woman was relatively lighter in tone compared to the DCEU’s first two films, but nowhere near in the same desperately forced way as Justice League. Terrified of the critical backlash against the admittedly gritty and more serious tone of the DCEU’s first two films, panicked WB execs decided to do a massive slice and dice to Zack Snyder’s meticulously planned out and sprawling saga in hopes of churning out a sunnier, more light-hearted superhero romp, obviously matching the tone and feel of Marvel’s more mass appeal fare. They rewrote and re-shot big pieces of Snyder’s planned film and, in a pathetically transparent attempt to sell more tickets, hacked off huge chunks to fit a pitiful run-time of less than two hours. As we all know, this money-grabbing scheme backfired spectacularly, resulting in what was the DCEU’s lowest-grossing and perhaps most hated and ignored film, with both Zack Snyder fans and haters finding plenty to dislike.
In the aftermath, the DCEU’s future looked dead in the water, at least in terms of any more Justice League films and even in regards to DC’s two top characters, Superman and Batman, getting any future solo films featuring Affleck and Cavill. Still, in December of last year, we saw the long-overdue Aquaman film swim triumphantly at the box office, taking in over a billion dollars worldwide and receiving generally positive reviews. Much of the credit has to go to Jason Momoa’s gruff and snarky but lovable take on the character and the film’s great balance of the epic (a la Man of Steel and Wonder Woman) with the more lighthearted. Aquaman was the runaway smash that DC so desperately needed. Finally, we now get to see the story of troubled 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson who, upon meeting a wizard and saying the magic word, transforms into his super-powered and seriously stacked adult self, Shazam.
Let’s be honest here, compared to more grounded and believable characters like Batman and even Superman and Flash (whose powers at least have some theoretical basis in scientific principal), Shazam is much more far fetched and to its credit, the film’s previews did an excellent job of establishing that this was going to be a very humor forward film that didn’t take itself too seriously. When it comes to wizards and magic words, you don’t ever want to be too serious because it can very quickly cross over into camp.
The film’s villain, Dr. Sivana, while certainly serious in his intentions and faithful to the comics, is nowhere near as intense or dangerous a villain as say, Zod, and the film’s stakes aren’t nearly as serious as previous films, which works given the film’s subject matter. Additionally, since the main characters are all teenagers, a heavy and serious tone throughout wouldn’t seem totally genuine, even for foster kids. Zachary Levi, the actor who portrays Shazam so wonderfully, mentioned that the film is like the Tom Hanks movie Big but with superpowers, and it’s hard to argue with this spot-on description.
Not only does Billy Batson go from a kid to an adult in an instant, he transforms into a jacked and super-powered adult, the ultimate childhood fantasy come true. As soon as he gets the powers, Billy and his new foster brother Freddy, a diehard superhero fanboy, go about excitedly testing his abilities and then use them to indulge in all the standard teenage boy desires, while also stopping (or attempting to stop a few crimes in the process). This giddy and fun-loving reaction to suddenly becoming a superhero makes perfect sense given that the characters are kids. Their reactions are naturally going to be more unrestrained and impulsive. However, it also helps that they live in a world which has already gotten used to superheroes thanks to the efforts of heroes such as Wonder Woman, Batman and of course, Superman, whose sacrifice paved the way for new heroes to be easily accepted.
Superman looms large in Shazam!, not only as the world’s most revered superhero but also as an inspiring role model for new heroes to emulate. Upon acquiring his powers, Billy and Freddy immediately set out to test whether or not he shares powers with Superman, chief among them flight, super strength, and invulnerability. Furthermore, Superman’s heroics are seen as the gold standard by which all new heroes are judged. Not long after getting the powers, Billy begins showing off to the public and posing for selfies with people who immediately embrace this newest caped hero. It’s clear that the only reason the public so quickly embraces Shazam is because of the trust and gratitude which developed as a result of Superman’s heroic sacrifice in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
For many people BvS is still the movie that shall not be named, the film which stained the DCEU for all time, despite making over 800 million dollars and introducing both Wonder Woman and Aquaman for the first time, but even those who still hate it have to at least acknowledge that the film, along with its predecessor Man of Steel, laid most of the difficult groundwork for the lighter tone of the later films. Ironically, it was precisely the comparatively grittier and more serious tone and the struggles of the characters in those first two films which give rise to the more self-assured tone of the newest films, a tone which was fought for and well earned.
I firmly believe this was the plan all along; to introduce the world’s first superhero, Superman, into a world which, just like ours, would be very ambivalent about this alien with godlike powers living among us. As we saw, reactions would range from visceral terror, mistrust, and hate to outright religious worship as people grappled with the implications of such unchecked power. Superman was the same as he’s always been, just a guy trying to do what he feels is right and help as many people as he could, but making natural mistakes along the way and learning from them. Sadly, as is far too often the case, it took him sacrificing himself for the world to see the truth of his intentions.
By taking a leap of faith and revealing himself to the world, Superman served as a beacon for other exceptional individuals to step out of the shadows and, as in the case of Batman and Wonder Woman, his sacrifice restored their faith in humanity. As mentioned, I believe this was Snyder’s intention all along, he just understood that the end result would be more satisfying and inspirational if it felt earned through tremendous struggle. Now that the dark night of the soul has passed for Superman and he’s finally been embraced as the shining beacon of hope he always was, newer heroes can step out into the world without facing the same trepidation and uncertainty which plagued young Clark, growing up as he did thinking he was all alone in the world. Heroes like Shazam can take comfort in knowing they can look to those who came before for guidance in uncertain moments.
With all this in place, Shazam! rolls along as precisely the kind of film it was intended to be; a less intense and more straightforward superhero adventure filled with a lot of laughs. The tone of each upcoming DCEU film should suit the character it portrays, especially now that the serious groundwork has been laid down. As I watched Shazam! I was, of course, thrilled to see all the references to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but I also felt occasional twinges of sadness for what could’ve been if Justice League had been finished properly, instead of the rushed and criminally watered-down facsimile we ended up with. I was saddened to think that Superman’s incredible character arc, begun brilliantly in Man of Steel, was robbed of the power of its satisfying conclusion and instead shoehorned in. What’s more, I was saddened to think that we might never see another Superman solo film where Henry Cavill’s devotion to the Man of Steel, now as a fully realized and confident character, can once more be put to good use.
As I sat in the theater, listening to the audience exploding with laughter after every joke, I couldn’t help feeling that they weren’t grasping that the reason it worked for Shazam was that he had the benefit of becoming an instant superhero in a world that already trusted and admired superheroes. As much as I enjoyed the film for what it was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something crucial has been missing from the DCEU, namely the presence of Batman and Superman as the twin pillars of the universe. Had people been a bit more patient and WB a bit less greedy, we would’ve seen these characters eventually develop into their fully realized selves as de facto leaders, along with Wonder Woman, of the DCEU, helping to guide the newer heroes like Shazam into the future. Instead, we’re left with their ghosts, a sad reminder of what could’ve been.
That being said, Shazam! was still a very enjoyable addition to the DCEU if taken at face value for what it’s intended to be. Still, with the future of every one of DC’s other core heroes (with the exception of Aquaman and Wonder Woman), stuck in limbo, it’s hard to see a clear way forward for the larger DC universe in film. I, along with countless other people, hope to see at least one more solo Superman film with Cavill and perhaps future team-ups with other heroes like Shazam and Wonder Woman even if it’s not exactly the Justice League. To waste someone as clearly made for the role of Superman as Cavill is just foolish. Regardless, we’ll just have to wait and see what direction they decide to take things. For the time being, I’ll take what I can get.
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