By: BRENDAN MCDANIEL
So, I’m guessing a lot of you went out to see “Shazam!” recently. Shazam! will have made nearly $200 million in a week since it debuted, doubling its production budget and having started early plans for a sequel presumably right after the box office numbers came in.
Superhero movie comes out and it makes bank; big shock, right? Well, believe it or not, the success of “Shazam!” actually is a bit of a surprise. DC hasn’t exactly been hitting it big at the box office with its non-Batman related material, and even then, the current outlook isn’t promising.
Even successes like 2017’s fantastic “Wonder Woman” or even last year’s decently-performing “Aquaman” were bookended by critical and commercial mistakes like “Justice League,” “Suicide Squad,” or the infamously terrible “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” So how is it that “Shazam!” managed to succeed where its predecessors had failed?
Most obviously, because it’s a really great movie. “Shazam!” is all-around a good time, mixing impressive action scenes with powerful emotional drama and maintaining a clever and joyful sense of humor all throughout; everything you’d want and expect from a superhero film.
There wasn’t a single moment during either of the times I went to see it that I didn’t have a goofy smile on my face from how much fun I was having with the film. It helps that the film has a great cast, with Mark Strong playing a surprisingly menacing Dr. Sivana, and Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer being comedy gold as Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman, respectively.
David Sandberg’s directing is also great, with the film having a number of really powerful shots and sequences that go a long way to really sell the very silly Shazam as a legitimate superhero.
But as great as it is, I think what really gave the movie its potential was its smart and self-aware writing. We’ve made a lot of superhero movies; 79, according to IMDb, and that’s only counting Marvel/DC films. We should have not only some idea of how to make them, but how to make them well.
In the past decade or two, DC has been taking an incredibly dark and moody approach to its superhero films, often making drastic departures from what one would find if they picked up an actual comic book, while Marvel has almost always kept their films fairly humorous and accessible.
So far, DC’s dark and moody superheroes seem to have only really worked with Batman, a character that already had an established formula for dark and moody interpretations with works such as The Dark Knight or The Killing Joke.
On top of that, they also like to fill their films to overflowing with lore to an absurd degree. Just look at how much ground “Batman v. Superman” tried to cover; follow-up to “Man of Steel,” introduction of Batman, Batman versus Superman, introduction of Wonder Woman, foreshadowing of Flashpoint, set-up for the DCEU, Death of Superman, and set-up for the Justice League sequel. That’s a total of eight different storylines the film, any one of which would have worked fine as a standalone movie.
“Shazam!” has none of that. It’s enjoyable, it’s easily accessible even if you aren’t familiar with the source material, and it functions just fine as its own experience. Although it doesn’t have much in the way of artistic refinement like “Wonder Woman” had, it did manage to have something that I feel every other DC film lacked: fun.
It sounds strange, but I think the main thing that separates the superhero film from the rest of the action genre is that one simple concept. When you look at a more traditional action flick, you can generally expect to see super-serious, super-macho heroes doing super-serious, super-macho things.
The hard and gritty tone you see in a lot of straight action movies is a bit difficult to pull off when your heroes are wearing ridiculous spandex outfits and chucking laser beams at each other. But I think that’s okay for them to not be so dark all the time.
I get that people seem to really like grim and edgy Batman, but grim and edgy Superman? I remember seeing “Man of Steel” when it came out, and there was one thought that kept racing through my mind. This was Superman? That this mopey, brooding, and all around unhappy to exist character was supposed to be the poster boy for Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
It seemed conceptually wrong, almost perverse in a way; like buying a teddy bear and finding out it’s stuffed with live wasps.
Is “Shazam!” going to somehow save the current DCEU from the tiringly depressing route it has taken to bringing the Justice League to live-action cinema? No, almost certainly not. But it’s certainly one of the best DC superhero films to date, and one you’d do well not to miss.