Could Shazam be the hero to save the DC Universe?
Its rivals at Marvel have flourished in cinemas, so perhaps DC’s newest superhero will be the one to help reignite its appeal beyond comic book fans
The posters for Shazam! say it all. They feature Zachary Levi dressed in a mildly ridiculous red and gold outfit with a lightening flash logo, blowing a bubble with his gum and casually playing on his phone in one; and taking a long swig from a cup branded “big thirst”, with a playful glint in his eye in another.
“Just say the word” runs the tagline, a cool-sounding phrase that references one of the goofier superhero summonings there is. With the uttering of the word “Shazam”, this multi-powered do-gooder appears as if by magic; it makes Superman’s use of a telephone box to change his outfit look positively sophisticated.
Directed by David F Sandberg, who made his mark in horror movies with Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, Shazam! is the superhero film fans DC Comics have been waiting for. Ostensibly, the story exists in the same world as Batman and Superman – both are referenced here – but when it comes to bringing him to the screen, Sandberg and his writer Henry Gayden have chosen a different path.
Based on a character that first appeared in comic form in 1939 – and, confusingly, went by the name of “Captain Marvel”, despite no connection to Marvel Comics’ own hero of the same name – the pitch here is surprisingly simple. In Philadelphia, a 14-year-old runaway, Billy Batson (Angel Asher) is bestowed with powers by an ancient sage, The Wizard (Djimon Hounsou).
With Billy saying his verbal calling card, he becomes Shazam – the red-and-gold-suited, gum-blowing hero as played by the 38-year-old Levi. In other words, it’s a super-heroic twist on the old body-swap films, notably 1988’s Big, starring David Moscow as a teen who wishes himself into an adult’s – Tom Hanks’ – body. Here, Billy not only has to contend with being an adolescent refashioned as a man. His rippling new torso comes with all manner of added extras: super-strength, agility and resistance to fire and bullets. Together with his friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), another foster-home kid, Billy soon starts to road-test his abilities.
This leads to some of the film’s best scenes as Billy and Freddy do what any modern-day kid with superpowers would do – post videos of them all on YouTube to build up a huge following (in a montage cut to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now). It all positions the character of Shazam in the same innocent category as Marvel’s Spider-Man – an adolescent still struggling with friends and high school, who also happens to boast out-of-this-world skills. Like Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, family tragedy looms large in Shazam!. When Billy was a boy, he was separated from his mother at a funfair, never to be reunited.
He has spent years ducking in and out of foster homes, desperate to find her again, but Sandberg and Gayden never forget to keep the dark clouds in the background; first and foremost, Shazam! is a celebration of the inherent goofiness that should come with nearly all superhero movies.
'Deadpool for kids'
It has already been dubbed “Deadpool for kids”, a reference to the Ryan Reynolds-starring films – again from the Marvel cannon – that deconstructed the superhero genre with stinging wit. This doesn’t quite break the fourth wall in the way Reynolds’ foul-mouthed crime-fighter Deadpool did, but the irreverent tone does bring it in line with the character from the Shazam! comics (particularly after he was revived in 1972 under this new moniker, after various legal and rights battles meant the name “Captain Marvel” was lost).
The film also benefits from the presence of Mark Strong, who plays Dr Thaddeus Sivana, the supervillain who wants to inherit Billy’s powers to add to his own not inconsiderable evil talents (he can summon demonic beasts at will). Strong, who might just have the best movie cranium since Bruce Willis, is effectively reprising his nemesis role from Kick-Ass, another tale of an adolescent wannabe superhero. It won’t crack the pantheon of cinema’s greatest villains but it’s an effective turn.
Is it enough to save Worlds of DC?
It’s too early to say, of course, but Shazam! might be the film that saves Worlds of DC (the cinematic universe for all things DC Comics). It can only be a source of frustration for the brand to watch its rivals at Marvel flourish in cinemas. This month Avengers: Endgame – the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of Marvel movies that have successfully brought together such beloved characters as Iron Man, Hulk, Spider-Man and Black Panther – will be released.
In theory, DC should have claimed its fair share of the seemingly unquenchable desire by contemporary audiences for comic book movies. With figures such as Batman and Superman, who had already enjoyed considerable success on screen in various incarnations, it had its leading players. It also had its equivalent to the Avengers, with the Justice League – a superhero team-up that brought together Batman and Superman with other heroes including Wonder Woman, Aquaman and The Flash.
Beginning with Zack Snyder’s Superman “re-birth” Man of Steel (2013), which introduced Henry Cavill in the title role, the solemn, po-faced tone was set. Worse was to come in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), as Ben Affleck took on the Caped Crusader, Gal Gadot was introduced as Wonder Woman and Jesse Eisenberg played Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor. “Overstuffed and preposterous,” said the New York Times.
Each film felt like a set-up for the next. Dawn of Justice shoehorned in clips of Aquaman and The Flash, ready for Snyder’s 2017 team-up Justice League. Even when they went left-field, with the likes of Suicide Squad (2016) – starring the villains, including Jared Leto as Batman’s old foe The Joker, playing the leads – the films suffered from the Snyder touch. Drowning in special effects, the gloomy vision made for a maudlin experience.
It’s true that Worlds of DC films haven’t exactly tanked at the box office. Dawn of Justice took $873 million (Dh3.2 billion) worldwide. Aquaman, the recent stand-alone adventure for Jason Momoa’s underwater hero, took $1.14bn. Yet only Patti Jenkins’ Wonder Woman managed to combine solid numbers ($821m) with critical acclaim. Crucially, the film stirred in some much-needed humour, particularly in Wonder Woman’s tender relations with Chris Pine’s First World War pilot Steve Trevor.
Why DC failed but Marvel succeeded
Right back to Robert Downey Jr’s snarky Iron Man, humour has been an integral part of the Marvel experience. DC, meanwhile, has struggled to find its funny bone, despite the best efforts of Ezra Miller as speedy teen The Flash. But with Shazam!, it feels like DC has finally learnt to lighten up. As a result, early reviews have been enthusiastic and the film is poised for a decent $48m on opening weekend in the US. Just maybe it’ll be enough to inspire a new direction.
From the outside, Worlds of DC seems fragmented, lacking the precise planning Marvel has mapped out.
From the outside, Worlds of DC seems fragmented, lacking the precise planning Marvel has mapped out. Next up The Joker will be unleashed, yet another reboot of Batman’s unhinged opponent, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Birds of Prey, the solo tale for Margot Robbie’s Suicide Squad character Harley Quinn, come next. Both could do with a splash of Shazam!’s good nature, but chances are, it’ll be back to the doom and gloom.
Still, perhaps, there is hope. Jenkins is now putting the finishing touches to Wonder Woman 1984, the sequel to 2017’s film, and James Gunn, who directed Marvel’s extremely funny Guardians of the Galaxy films, is said to be making the sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad. If DC is ever to challenge Marvel and expand its reach beyond the comic-reading crowd, it needs to remember that word: Shazam!
Shazam! is in cinemas across the UAE from April 4
Updated: April 2, 2019 04:59 PM