A lot can change in 3 years. Exactly 3 years ago, the DCEU hit it’s critical nadir, as Batman V Superman: Unnecessarily Long Title hit theaters, grossed a ton of money, but was torn to shreds by critics and audiences alike. The list of complaints directed towards the film were massive – somber tone, dour characters, haphazard editing, muddy cinematography, needlessly cumbersome plotting, poorly realized character motivations, contrived resolutions, and a dash of sloppy, distracting world building and sequel baiting. But to shorten the complaints: it was a mess.
Since then, and the similarly derided Suicide Squad, Warner Bros. has been proactive in turning around the perception of their crown jewel franchise. These hasty reactions led to the Frankenstein production of Justice League, but it also forced the studio to re-think the execution of their superhero slate. Starting with Wonder Woman, DC began to dial it back on the Easter eggs and overzealous sequel teasing, instead focusing on making films that would entice viewers to return based on quality, not universe trend seeking. Wonder Woman was a critical darling and a monster box office hit. Last year’s Aquaman, while not as lauded, became the highest grossing DC film in history, nearly doubling the worldwide gross of Justice League.
This brings us to Shazam!, the most obscure and least known main protagonist of the DCEU to date. Arriving without the burden of heavy expectations, it is already the best received film in the franchise since Wonder Woman. And for great reason – at last DC has provided a film that reminds us why we love superheroes and pulp fiction in general: the ability to momentarily travel to a more exciting world than our own is fulfilling.
What is separating the recent DCEU films from those that drew so much ire from critics is a complete 180 in the objectives in the films. The franchise was born in the direct aftermath of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, so naturally Warner Bros. attempted to mimick what audiences loved about that series. As a result, the DCEU’s prerogative would be dark, gritty tones, stern protagonists, and an obsession with themes and attaching some type of hidden meaning to every orifice of the production. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the style Warner Bros. was going for; they proved that themselves, as Chris Nolan’s Batman films are some of the most beloved cinema of this century.
However, films like Man of Steel and the aforementioned BVS came off as lower grade imitations of Nolan’s style. Their philosophical themes, producing many monologues from several different characters, proved hollow as most of it was never dramatized in a satisfying way. Superman himself, in an effort to make him edgier and more appealing to young adults, just comes off as a dull avatar not interesting enough or sympathetic enough to inspire us to root for him.
While the DCEU is changing in several ways, perhaps it’s most significant change are the screenplays that support them and the depiction of the main characters that anchor them. No longer are they trying to shout half-baked themes at us in the hopes of being labeled as a Smart Blockbuster™. And no longer are the main characters grim, overly serious, pensive Debbie downers. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Billy Batson (Shazam’s secret identity) are characters we can relate to. They’re characters who are fun to be around, fun to hang out with, maybe even have a beer with (well, we’ll wait until Billy’s older).
In this sense, Warner Bros. has cracked the “code” on what has made Marvel Studios so successful. It’s characters that the movie going world loves, characters whose journey we want to see play out. If no one actually liked Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, or Thor then no one would have given a shit about the Avengers. It wasn’t about the lore, that was just the icing. It was about the characters feeling like flesh and blood human beings, and the relationships that defined them. Warner Bros. finally got the memo, and the course correction brought us the tragic romance between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. It brought us the bromance between Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman, two immature teens who act like immature teens and bicker like friends that age would. They brought us characters we can relate to; if we can relate to them, we’ll believe in them.
Seeing Shazam! for the first time reminded me why we go to the movies. It was the first time since The Dark Knight that a DC film immediately inspired me to want to see it again. It’s not a perfect film, but what it succeeds at (characterizations, relationships, an empathetic hero, and a mythology we want to learn more about) establishes Shazam! as the greatest evidence yet that Warner Bros. have put the DC train back on track, perhaps for the foreseeable future.
Shazam! isn’t the best superhero movie ever, but it does belong in the catalogue with the genre’s greatest hits. It understands it’s world, characters, and tone and proceeds to execute it with flair and contagious energy. It’s the type of film kids will want to watch over and over and adults will appreciate for it’s sense of wonder as well as it’s humor and performances. Perhaps it’s the best film of the DCEU, and while it won’t reach the same box office heights of some of it’s predecessors, it’s just the latest example that Warner Bros. has righted the ship. There’s high expectations ahead for future DC films, including a Joker movie later this year. However, if they keep making films as great as Shazam!, they won’t have to worry about their reputation any longer.