Shazam! Fixes the DCEU’s Biggest Problem

This article contains spoilers for Shazam!

As much as I enjoyed the humor in Shazam!, it’s the film’s heart that ultimately won me over. This could have been a two-hour ride of rip-roaring fun and silly superhero antics, and it is, and that might have been enough, but Shazam! is so much more than that. There is a deeper story beyond the good guy needing to beat up the bad guy, and in a bizarre twist of fate for the DCEU, the movie actually works from a storytelling perspective.

My absolute favorite aspect of this film is that the protagonist is a flawed person who experiences significant growth throughout the story (you’d think that this would be pretty standard for the DCEU, as this is a pretty basic concept of storytelling in fiction, but I digress). In Shazam!, we follow almost fifteen-year old Billy Batson, who was separated from his mother at a young age and has been in foster care ever since. Billy’s main motivation is finding his mom, which often entails running away from his foster homes in attempts to track her down. It is after running away yet again that he is placed in a new home with five other foster children and two loving parents, but Billy refuses to commit to this new lifestyle and doesn’t open himself up to them at all, believing his only home is with his mother, wherever she may be.

This is a superhero movie, of course, and the hero has to become super somehow. Fortunately for Billy, an ancient wizard desperately seeking a champion to inherit his powers invites Billy into his magic cave—it’s much less creepy than that sounds, I promise—and gifts the teen with remarkable abilities: super speed, super strength, flight, and the ability to shoot lightning bolts out of his fingers. What I love about Shazam! is that it has a very honest take on this scenario. I don’t mean this in the sense that the film takes a very grounded, realistic approach to superpowers; I mean that the film takes a very grounded, realistic approach to the effect that these superpowers have on its protagonist.

Once Billy turns into a buff, superpowered version of himself, he acts entirely selfishly. He shows off in public and expects money from strangers who take selfies with him. He posts videos of his superpowered stunts to YouTube and uses his older appearance to buy alcohol. Rather than doing good for the sake of doing good, Billy does street tricks for the sake of feeling important. When his foster brother, Freddy, is pushed around by school bullies, Billy’s first instinct is to run. Even after Billy gets his powers, his reaction when robbers burst into a convenience store is to hide behind a fourteen-year old who needs a crutch to walk. While this makes for a pretty funny visual, it serves a greater purpose in the narrative than providing the audience with a cheap laugh.

This selfish behavior makes sense from Billy Batson; throughout his life, Billy has felt abandoned and unwanted due to his parents’ absence. Now that he has superpowers, people are finally devoting attention to him and showering him with praise, even if that adoration is only present on the basest of surface levels. It takes time for Billy to use his powers responsibly and mature as a person, which creates a compelling, believable, and functional arc for his character.

In the first half of the film, Billy (as his superpowered alter ego Captain Sparklefingers) rescues his foster sister, Mary, from being hit by a car. The two have a heart-to-heart in which Mary reveals her struggle with her decision to leave for college, as she doesn’t want to leave her family behind. Billy then directly tells her that family makes you weak and that you can only rely on yourself. That’s something that a villain would say, and that’s something that the villain of this movie believes.

In terms of bad guys, the DCEU doesn’t exactly house the cream of the crop. While villains like Enchantress, Steppenwolf, and Jesse Eisenberg induce everything from full-on facepalm to maximum cringe, Shazam!’s villain, Dr. Sivana, is largely an improvement over the DCEU’s previous baddies. We shouldn’t judge a character off of how he compares to a parade of poorly-written pariahs, however, so let’s evaluate this guy on his own merits.

Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana isn’t particularly complex or compelling, but he is a sympathetic character. As a child, he was considered as a candidate to inherit the Wizard’s powers, but the Wizard denied him these powers because he believed Sivana wasn’t of pure enough heart. Sivana’s father and older brother never believed him about his encounter with the Wizard, and both were cruel to him throughout his entire life. The abuse that he suffered at their hands became the fuel for his hatred; he devoted every ounce of his being to proving to his family that he was telling the truth about meeting the Wizard and about the existence of magic.

Sivana was eventually able to attain great magical ability by absorbing not the power of the Wizard, but the power of the Wizard’s sworn enemies: the Seven Deadly Sins. With their aid and with his newfound abilities, Dr. Sivana finally takes revenge on his father and brother, and he spends the rest of the movie attempting to kill Billy, as Billy, having been granted the Wizard’s powers, is the only being powerful enough to stop the Seven Deadly Sins from ravaging all of humanity.

While his character becomes much more of a generic bad guy after murdering his family, this doesn’t pose a significant problem for the film itself. In fact, this plays to the film’s strengths. Yes, much of Dr. Sivana’s dialogue is purposefully cliché, but it plays very well off of Zachary Levi’s less confident, much goofier Shazam. More important than Sivana’s ability to amp up the comedy, however, is how perfect a parallel he is to the protagonist. Both Sivana and Billy are dealt pretty crappy hands in terms of childhood, but it is only Billy who is able to transcend his trauma, learn from his mistakes, and grow as a person.

Both Billy’s and Sivana’s biological families reject them, and the biggest difference between the two is how they handle this rejection. Sivana never truly stops being that wounded, angry child, even into middle age. His life goal, which he accomplishes, is getting revenge on his family, and he sees family as nothing more than a torment that can be dealt with to achieve catharsis. Billy spends much of the movie being that angry, detached kid, refusing to believe that anybody but his biological mother could be considered family. He shuts his foster family out despite the fact that they have shown him nothing but kindness, and that they’re the only people who have shown him nothing but kindness. It is only after having a falling-out with Freddy and a disappointing encounter with his birth mom that he realizes how much of a supreme jerkface he has been, and Billy is only redeemed, ultimately, by his family.

When Billy finally tracks down his biological mother, the task he’s been working towards his entire life and the task we’ve seen him struggle with since his introduction in the movie, it’s far from the ideal, blissful moment that Billy had been expecting. As it turns out, Billy’s mother didn’t accidentally lose him in a crowd; she willfully abandoned him, believing that he would have a better life if someone other than her, a young, single parent overwhelmed with responsibility, raised him. When Billy finally finds her (thanks entirely to his foster siblings, who managed to track down his mom for him), his mother doesn’t even hug him when he leans in to embrace her. It’s a very dark moment, but it’s perhaps the film at its most honest and human. This is Billy’s turning point, when he comprehends the family that he has taken for granted, and it forces him to change his definition of family and the way he views the world in general.

In order to talk more about Billy’s arc, we need to discuss the climactic battle between Billy and Dr. Sivana, and unfortunately, it has a few issues. Besides the fact that the Billy and Dr. Sivana punching each other into tall buildings overstays its welcome by a decent margin, this final conflict lacks tension. While at first it appears that Billy is hopelessly outnumbered and underpowered—Sivana has loosed the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins on Billy and his foster siblings—the tide turns in his favor when Billy joins forces with his brothers and sisters. By imbuing them with the Wizard’s powers, he essentially creates five more Shazams who proceed to whoop the Seven Deadly Sins’ butts. It’s pretty obvious that the movie isn’t going to kill off or harm any of the children, some of whom aren’t old enough to break into double digits in terms of age, so this sequence doesn’t exactly leave you hanging on the edge of your seat in anticipation.

Despite this, I still agree with the storytelling decisions made in this final battle. The conflict at the heart of Shazam! doesn’t involve Billy and Dr. Sivana beating the snot out of each other; the true conflict exists within our protagonist. The climactic moment of the third act doesn’t occur when Dr. Sivana is defeated, but rather when Billy decides to share his power with his foster siblings and fully embrace his family. He is finally letting them into his life, making this a far cry from the “family makes you weak” nonsense that Billy stated towards the beginning of the film. When Billy thinks back to the Wizard and remembers him mentioning that there were originally seven wizards on the council, Billy understands that what made them strong was that they were not alone. Billy doesn’t have to be alone, he doesn’t have to rely solely on himself, because his crappy biological family is not where his family ends. This is something that the antagonist, Dr. Sivana, never understood or dared to learn.

Shazam! fixes the DCEU’s most pervasive problem thus far, which is a lack of interesting, fully-formed, and dynamic characters. The movie’s focus is on the characters, specifically its protagonist, and that focus is not misplaced. Billy Batson is a flawed, relatable, likable, and dynamic character with agency who feels like a real person, and it warms my heart beyond description that this is the case. While Marvel’s superheroes films have plenty of their own problems, what has allowed so many people to connect with their movies are their protagonists, because they are, for the most part, complex and relatable people. Some might say that a huge appeal of the superhero genre is watching two superpowered beings knocking the stuffing out of one another; others might suggest that indulging in the fantasy of a more morally binary world is what makes superhero tales so attractive to such a wide audience. For my money, though, what makes these types of stories great are the characters. I can say without a doubt that Shazam! understands this, and as a fan of DC comics, as a fan of superhero movies, and as a fan of good storytelling in general, this brings me remarkable joy. I’m grinning like I’m an absolute moron right now while typing this, simply because Shazam! gets so much right.

All of this quality material is enhanced by the great performances from the cast. There aren’t any weak links here, even among the child actors. Zachary Levi plays a teenage boy in an adult superhero’s body with an infectious enthusiasm and glee. Somewhat ironically, it is the adult version of Shazam that acts more childish than the actual teenage version of Billy, who is played by Asher Angel. Angel clearly conveys the burdens that Billy Batson holds within himself, but he doesn’t ham it up or overact. That darkness is subtle, but it’s so believable due to Angel’s consistent performance.

The true all-star actor of Shazam!, in my opinion, is Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman. With the number of quips and one-liners that Freddy spouts, he should become annoying. He should come off as the writers trying too hard to be funny, and he should wear the audience out after a while, but he doesn’t. Jack Dylan Grazer nails every single line of dialogue that is given to him, delivering them so capably that he often outshines even the titular character of the movie. Grazer also hits the perfect level of hurt and anger present in his character during the more emotional scenes in Shazam!, too, and he deserves a mountain of praise for so effectively bringing the character of Freddy Freeman to life.

I do harbor a few minor complaints about the movie, of course. I wish the Seven Deadly Sins were more visually distinct from one another, as they are all the same shade of grayish-green and share a similar goblin-y aesthetic. Besides Gluttony, I honestly don’t think I could identify any of the other Sins by appearance, and I’m confused why these villains weren’t distinguished more by color or visual design.      

There’s also a brief moment in which Sivana and Billy connect to one another—not exactly a “We’re not so different, you and I, moment,” but something hinting at that, at a shared understanding of the darker side of the world. As Billy himself says to the Wizard in the first act, purely good people don’t really exist, and no one believes that more than Sivana. Billy, in some ways, understands Sivana’s pain, but I wish they would have pushed this dialogue a bit further, dug a little bit deeper into the shared experiences and differing ideologies of these two people. Some more facetime between the hero and the villain would have helped in this regard, as they are such perfect reflections of one another, but this small missed opportunity by no means causes major issues within the narrative.

I should specify that the secret to Shazam!’s success isn’t its lighter tone. The DCEU has long been criticized for its lack of levity, but in my opinion, that has never been the root of the problem. Ultimately, it’s the poor writing of DC’s movies that have damaged them so severely. In terms of tone, Aquaman seems like a sunny day in Death Valley compared to Batman V Superman, but that doesn’t change the fact that the scripts for both of these movies function worse than a third-act battle with a CGI Doomsday. If anything, the DCEU’s tone problems arise not from the shade of the tone, but from the consistency of it. Fortunately, Shazam! doesn’t inherit the glaring tonal issues or the quarter-baked screenplays of its predecessors. I’m pleased that Henry Gayden, the writer of Shazam!, has already been confirmed to be back for the sequel, as his airtight screenplay is the main reason, in my opinion, that Shazam! was able to succeed.

I haven’t hidden my disdain for the DCEU in the past (see my review of Aquaman for evidence of that), and to be honest, I’m still very skeptical of these movies as a whole. Shazam! is undoubtedly a huge win for DC and Warner Bros., and the best movie of the DCEU thus far, but it by no means wipes the DCEU of its past sins. Regardless, the more I think about Shazam!, the more I like it, and in my experience, that’s the mark of a great film. I can only hope that the DCEU continues to produce more excellent movies like Shazam!, but for the first time ever, that hope feels tangible.

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