Lex Luthor stands before his arch nemesis, the fully human/fully Kryptonian savior of the masses, Superman. A showdown of fists awaits Superman over in Gotham City, but not before he must sit through Luthor’s attempt at an intro to philosophy class. Luthor contemplates how Superman could possibly be so powerful but also without corruption. Several decades prior, Wonder Woman enters a similar discussion. The god of war, Ares, is trying to convince her that war and suffering aren’t products of his evil scheming but are the natural yield of the depraved hearts of humanity. The DC Comics film and television world, dubbed the DC Extended Universe or DCEU, has been doing a delicate dance to the tunes of power, morality, and depravity for years and that dance continues in their latest effort, Shazam!.
Those philosophy exercises have left the DC fan base pretty mixed and has added more pressure on a franchise constantly trying to catch up to Marvel and their Avengers. Starting with Wonder Woman and then, a largely reshot, Justice League, DC has been trying to lighten things up. The result was Aquaman, a mindless, CGI adventure more on par with the recent Fast & Furious films than the engaging, blockbuster comic book movies always topping the charts. While it was fun, DC’s resident fish wrangler may have been an over correction. Shazam!, though, could be their new sweet spot.
If Batman v Superman was their exploration of God’s sovereignty, and Wonder Woman is their white paper on total depravity, Shazam! is DC’s doctrine of grace. The movie is about one ancient wizard’s quest to find a human who is pure of heart. Once this champion is tracked down, the wizard, Shazam, can pass on his incredible powers equipping this human to battle back against the seven deadly sins, actual embodied representations of greed, envy, and the like. All Shazam has to do is find the perfect human. Should be easy right? It is not. Turns out the perfect human doesn’t exist.
Time’s running out for Shazam so he’s forced to settle for Billy Batson, an almost 15-yeard-old foster kid preoccupied with running away from group homes on a quest of his own to find his mother. Now this pre-teen that has a hard time avoiding police custody is imbued with the power of six Roman gods to become the new Shazam! The movie is about confronting Billy’s imperfections, healing from his wounds, opening his heart to forces outside himself, and finding something all the Roman gods in the world can’t provide. Shazam! is an interesting look at the nature of man, it’s a heartfelt story about wounded and broken people, and it is also hilarious!
Sure Shazam! evokes all the Hanks-ian charm of Big, a kid trapped in an adult body navigating the often absurd world of increased responsibility, but it just works. This is partly due to Zachary Levi (NBC’s Chuck) playing the child-like hero. They also fill out Billy’s foster home with cast mates that challenge the adolescent rosters of Stranger Things and It. Now that might be an easy, crowd pleasing formula, but just try not buying in to the smile of This is Us’s Faithe Herman or the teddy bear wiles of The Walking Dead’s Cooper Andrews. Shazam! is impossible to resist.
DC still has a long way to go in building trust with its fan base as well as average movie going audiences. Unfortunately, the news out of the DCEU doesn’t exactly instill confidence. There’s reportedly going to be several different Joker stories (one that’s already in production), a Suicide Squad sequel/reboot, a separate Harley Quinn movie, another Batman reboot, and maybe a Green Lantern Corps movie with the studio saying they’re scrapping the idea of a shared universe moving more towards isolated stories. Not to mention there’s also an entire league of heroes in developmental purgatory like Cyborg and The Flash. There is hope, though. Aquaman was fun, there is a new Wonder Woman movie next year, and Shazam! does take place in the interconnected Justice League universe. If DC wants to continue to build towards another team up movie, Shazam! could be the spark they need or it could be a bolt of lightning in otherwise dark and stormy sky. Either way, go enjoy DC’s new boy wonder!