Ever since the 2013 release of Man of Steel, a faction of fans and critics have attacked the bleak direction taken by Warner Bros with the Worlds of DC — to use the name unveiled at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, or the DC Extended Universe, as it’s popularly known. But this path was unavoidable. From the moment Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader bellowed the immortal words “SWEAR TO ME!” there was no other way forward. With the upcoming big-screen debut of Shazam!, though, things look to be changing.
It made sense, in the first place, for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to embrace a dark tone. The theme of fear is fundamental to the comic-book Batman mythology, and there was also a need to put memories of the camp 1960s series and the Joel Schumacher Batman films soundly to bed. By the same token, it made complete sense to carry the dark approach through once Nolan relinquished his DC stranglehold. The success of Nolan’s movies, however, has forced DC into playing catch-up in the years that followed, never quite managing to hit the heady heights of the director’s acclaimed Batman trilogy.
Following Aquaman, out later this year, Shazam! is predominantly based on the Geoff Johns/Gary Frank New 52 comic reboot of the character. Zachary Levi steps into the eponymous role – a teenager-turned-musclebound superhero gifted with the powers of six ancient Greek gods. This year’s San Diego Comic-Con gave us our first proper look at the DCEU’s newest hero, and it’s clear from both the trailer and cast interviews that Shazam! cuts ties with the hitherto downbeat mood, sharing more in common with Marvel’s brand of light-hearted fun. So could Shazam! be the DCEU’s answer to the Ant-Man films? Absolutely, and here’s why.
A Charismatic Leading Man
For all of Henry Cavill’s charm, pearly blue eyes, and perfect square jaw, the last son of Krypton has so far mainly been the DCEU’s resident wet blanket. That’s not necessarily a reflection on Cavill’s acting skills, but Zachary Levi is an actor with a proven track record of turning on the wit and charisma when needed. Just look at his comedy-spy series Chuck. He’s not too far removed from Paul Rudd, in fact, who in Ant-Man even manages to be endearing, despite Scott Lang’s past as a criminal.
Teenager Billy Batson transforms into his superhero alter-ego whenever he utters the famous phrase ‘Shazam!’ It’s only ever his physical appearance that changes, of course: his mind and carefree attitude stay the same. Because of this, Shazam is the epitome of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed superhero. He’s someone who is actually excited at the prospect of using his powers for good rather than feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility or moral obligation. When the movie lands, Zachary Levi will be living out every teenage boy’s dream, bringing an element that the likes of Iron Man and Thor haven’t yet been able to provide.
Levi will also no doubt make the most of Shazam’s childlike side — and pour his heart and soul into it, if only because of how poorly Marvel has treated the actor previously. For those unaware, the actor has already taken a bite of the superhero movie pie, as the Warriors Three’s Fandral in the two Thor sequels. In a very much ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-him’ role, Levi was originally tipped to play the character in the first film before scheduling conflicts scuppered plans. This was eventually rectified in Thor: The Dark World, but by the time Ragnarok came around, Fandral met a swift demise. Levi blatantly has some unfinished business with the genre, giving him every reason to bring his A-game this time around.
It’s a Comedy First, Action Movie Second
While you might think that Man of Steel’s infamous Superman vs Zod battle is a little excessive, director Zack Snyder did a decent job of depicting the feats these god-like beings are capable of. And on the whole, the DCEU delivers when it comes to action. Shazam!, therefore, finds itself in the position of not needing to prove itself to audiences in terms of spectacular set pieces. Where Shazam! will bring new to the table is in its effectiveness as a comedy.
The first indication that this will be the case is when looking at the director, David F. Sandberg. Though he’s a relatively new creative force in the industry – his directorial debut came with inventive supernatural horror Lights Out – his genre background means that he’s already well-acquainted with the value of timing. And just as with crafting scares in horror, the key to good comedy is timing.
An injection of well-constructed humour is exactly the kind of tone refresh the DCEU’s cold-hearted and serious universe needs right now. After all, one of the standout characters from last year’s (spotty at best) Justice League was Ezra Miller’s take on the Flash. Witty, likeable, and the easiest of all the heroes to identify with, the Flash is set to get his own standalone movie — but until then, Shazam! is the universe’s best chance to woo viewers looking to leave cinemas smiling rather than frowning.
Jumping Out of Obscurity and Into the Mainstream
Prior to the original Ant-Man’s release, many were unsure whether such an oddball comic-book hero would be able to head-up his own blockbuster film. Fast forward to a few months later and the size-altering superhero is stealing scenes in the most climactic superhero battle ever seen on screen. Yes, we mean the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War. Shazam very much finds himself in a similar position. Not fighting Marvel superheroes, but relatively unknown as far as mainstream audiences are concerned, with a power set that requires a similar stretch to get your head around.
The character’s relative obscurity is what makes Shazam! the fresh start it represents. It’s a perfect point for newcomers to jump on board the DCEU, while at the same time reinvigorating proceedings for jaded moviegoers. Batman, Superman and even the Flash have their own TV shows. Shazam doesn’t come with any baggage or expectations, and can exist entirely independently from the rest of the established universe. This could be the start of a completely new chapter for the DCEU. Who wouldn’t want an early bird ticket?
Shazam! hits screens on April 5, 2019.