Is the DCEU still a thing? Conceived as the answer to Marvel’s unfathomably successful Cinematic Universe, DC’s interconnected supertales never quite coalesced the way they were intended to. You could point to any number of reasons for this derailment: a lack of a Kevin Feige-type visionary at the helm, or a violent shift in tone from one movie to the next, or poor casting in crucial roles, or the general cart-before-the-horse nature in which this series was rushed into existence. Those are all blameworthy when considering the ineffectiveness of a franchise. But because each individual film in the DCEU — Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman — is mighty flawed in a vacuum, I’m inclined to point to crappy, one-note villains as an unfortunate recurring theme which, if given proper TLC, might just right the DCEU ship.
Well, you’re saying, that sounds like a massive oversimplification. It is, probably, considering we’re now in an era so dominated by superhero movies that the more experimental outings are the most interesting ones. Deadpool, Logan and Into the Spider-Verse all have villain types we’ve seen before, but they still manage to break the mold. Exactly, you’re saying, and besides, I happen to like General Zod and some of the other DC villains. Granted, ascribing a matter of opinion as the sole reason for the failure of a billion-dollar film franchise could be a stretch. Definitely, you’re saying, and besides, aren’t you supposed to be talking about the new one instead of whining about the old ones?
Yeah, yeah. The new one is Shazam!, starring Zachary Levi as the teenaged superhero in an adult’s body. Think Big as a superhero movie and you’ll be right on the money. Big, of course, hails from the late ’80s, an era in American filmmaking so dissimilar to today’s industry that it might as well be a foreign film. It was simultaneously a comedy and a drama and, more importantly, simultaneously enjoyable for kids and adults. Shazam! purports to do the same thing, although maybe it’s telling that the piano floor mat reference to Big will almost certainly go over the heads of today’s moviegoing kids.
As a kid’s movie, Shazam! is great. It’s uncomplicated in its story, filled with physical gags and pop-culture references, and capped with a feel-good moral that’d make Aesop applaud. The villain is Sivana (Mark Strong), who sneers and has facial scarring and straightforward motivation to seek and destroy the protagonist. Perhaps most notable is the diverse cast of young actors and actresses with whom it’d be hard not to identify if you’re a kid watching Shazam! The little girl seated next to me in the screening squirmed with delight throughout the movie, even though the recurring gag with the exterior of a gentlemen’s club caused her father to nervously say “uh-oh!” once or twice.
As a grown-ups movie, of course, Shazam! isn’t quite as unabashedly successful. The tropes and dialogue associated with the classic superhero origin story are retrod yet again here, culminating in much the same With Great Power lesson that at least half of all superhero movies end up trying to teach. Certain moments intended to provide emotional shading end up falling flat, particularly in a subplot regarding Billy Batson’s biological mother. And Sivana — sheesh. Those same traits that make him into a great villain in a kid’s movie — sneering, facial scarring, straightforward motivation — make him into a flat mustache-twirler from an adult’s POV. Sivana also dons or removes his sunglasses in every single appearance, which has nothing to do with anything but is still damn distracting.
I don’t mean to suggest that Shazam! should be geared more towards adults at the expense of an appeal to a younger crowd. But it’s not an If/Then equation, as evidenced by the ostensible inspiration of Big. Maybe The Incredibles or Spider-Verse are examples that hit closer to the point: a kid will find joy in these superhero flicks and won’t miss a beat along the way, while an adult will be entertained but also satisfied by a moderately-challenging narrative. Without sacrificing the easy fun or innocence of the film, certain elements in Shazam! would have benefitted from a rewrite with an adult’s perspective in mind.
Namely: the villain. Despite a surprising amount of time devoted to Sivana’s origin, this is never a character that exists outside his sneer or his incessant compulsion with his own sunglasses. His only human relationships are with his father and brother, though that association is instantly forgotten once they’re killed early in the film. Otherwise, Sivana’s power links him to the Seven Deadly Sins, beastly phantoms that manifest themselves at his command and look an awful lot like Zuul and Vinz Clortho as the Terror Dogs from Ghostbusters. Maybe instead of interchangeable grotesque gargoyles that are very obviously Evil with a Capital E, the more challenging version of Shazam! employs actual personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins (a seductive Lust, for example). This would be a more interesting visual design choice, sure, but more importantly it would offer opportunity to complicate Sivana by allowing him to interact with something besides a pack of clay dogs.
As the seventh movie in DC’s Extended Universe, Shazam! is still mostly a step in the right direction. Seeing Zachary Levi nail the role does make the prospect of an eventual face-off with Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam all the more enticing. But, again: is that still a thing? Johnson was cast in that role back when a whole slate of DC films was announced, many of which are now cancelled (Cyborg, “Part Two” of Justice League) or questionable (Flash, Green Lantern Corps). Further, DC’s development of standalone, non-DCEU projects like Joker seems to indicate a big change in strategy. Maybe that’s the real villain here, the Almighty IP that prioritizes studio-mandated restrictions over pure storytelling. DC might continue to try to teach that age-old maxim over and over — with great power comes great responsibility — but in many ways they’ve yet to actually learn that lesson.