‘Shazam!’ and the Importance of Understanding Your Characters
Don't Worry, This is Spoiler-Free.
At the time of writing this, I had just came home from watching the latest DC cinematic venture, Shazam! Real quick: the movie is good. Is it a game changer? No. Is it as big of a spectacle as a certain Endgame coming out later this month? Nope. Is it a good movie that you won’t regret seeing while it’s still playing in theaters? Absolutely. It’s a fun romp with heartfelt moments, goofy antics, and decent action. I recommend catching it when you get the chance, as it’s on the “better” end of the quality spectrum for DC comic movies. However, this isn’t a review of Shazam! where I gush about the things that I liked about the movie (my friends have gotten an earful already). This is a discussion on why Shazam! is the shining example of how understanding your characters can carry a comic book movie.
The things you’ve probably heard and assumed from watching the trailers are true. The movie is pretty much just Big with superpowers, and it even gives a little wink towards this during one of the first big fights with the main supervillain, Dr. Sivana. That’s not a complaint, but a compliment. The filmmakers and cast have their fun playing with the concept of what it would be like if a kid suddenly became Superman in some expected, but enjoyable ways. The comedic moments actually land, and are pretty much void of zingy quips and referential one-liners. The emotional gut punches aren’t insanely heavy or depressing, yet they make the audiences empathize with the character nonetheless— especially our main protagonist encounter with a certain character that is vital to his past. It’s a warm and lighthearted adventure (for the most part) that teaches a feel-good lesson about opening up our hearts and finding our real families. Some may say that this film is actually the most blatant example of DC trying to emulate the jokey and carefree tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I disagree. I think it’s DC and Warner Bros. finally understanding how vital it is to understand your characters.
I think it’s safe to say that we all remember the first time we saw Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It was amazingly unique; a groundbreaking film in a genre marred by over the top performances and cheesy directing choices. Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker became one of the definitive versions of the character, and the discussion about morality at the heart of the script made everyone who saw it feel like they’d just been graduated with a degree in philosophy. Several quotes taken from the movie made their way into pop culture and memes— used as both comedic jabs and deep, existential references in online debates. It’s consistently in the top five for any list ranking the best comic book movies of all time, and for good reason. There was no other comic book film like it when it first released, and Nolan made it clear that superheroes can work as dark, gritty, and grounded.
However, here’s the thing: Nolan understood that using that kind of tone and setting with Batman, a character whose origin is founded in grief and loss, and whose mission is centered around vengeance, made sense. Nolan took an already dark character and paired them with a dark tone. Zack Snyder and DC didn’t understand that using that same kind of tone and setting with Superman, a character whose symbolic meaning radiates hope and represents the best parts of humanity. You can’t take an inherently loving character, like Superman, and stick him in a two and a half hour long destruction porno that ends with him snapping his first supervillain’s neck in half. You especially can’t stick him in a sequel starring a new Batman that featured way too much religious iconography and biblical allegories that played up the two’s hatred and paranoia for each other, only for them to become best friends after they find out their moms share the same last name. The lesson here is: they tried to emulate Nolan without really taking the time to find out why Nolan succeeded. Remember that because I’m going somewhere with this, and I’m going to quiz you later.
Now, remember the first time The Avengers came out? It was wacky, fun, and entertaining. It had these fight scenes straight out of a comic book nerd’s wet dream. It started the trend of Marvel quips; you know, before they got annoying. It had genuinely tense moments where the team didn’t get along and then slowly learned to work together. It was the superhero team-up movie that I had wanted to see since I picked up my first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man. Again, it’s not hard to see why it is consistently in the top ten ranking of best comic book movies of all time across many lists. It’s a movie about a god with a magic hammer, a walking American flag, a flying tank, a giant green rage monster, and two highly skilled government agents fighting off an alien invasion and finding a space MacGuffin. It’s silly, so you might as well take it in stride and use it to your advantage.
Here’s how you don’t use it to your advantage: getting the same director from The Avengers for your own team-up movie, and telling him to just do the same thing for characters that haven’t been built up the same way. The same Batman you previously saw blow up a man by shooting the gas tank on his flamethrower, is now the same Batman that made an awkward “talking to fish” joke to Aquaman for some cheap laughs. The same Wonder Woman you last saw inspire hope for female audiences everywhere and stood as a hallmark victory for superheroines, is now the same Wonder Woman that was the butt of an out of place, sexual joke where The Flash accidentally landed with his face on her boobs (whoops!). Are you starting to see the problem here? You can’t take previously established characters and then change things about them, while adding one hundred quips so that audiences will like them more.
Yet, that’s the beauty of a movie like Shazam! It’s an inherently lighthearted with a silly character, and the people behind the film understand that. There’s no way to take a character whose nickname is “The Big Red Cheese,” and make it dark and gritty. So, why try? Why not just play to your strengths instead? Does that mean that you can’t dip your toes into the opposite end in the name of maintaining tone? Not at all. The film has some surprisingly dark moments where director David F. Sandberg’s low-budget horror roots shine, and prevents the film from coming across as too much of a “made for kids’ movie.” (Side note: Batman is allowed to be funny, but he works better as the straight man instead of the one cranking out quips.) As long as the core of the character is understood, tapped into during development, and brought to life on the big screen, you’ll end up with an enjoyable end result with room to allow for experimentation. It worked for Nolan, it worked for Whedon, and it seems to have worked out for Sandberg as well.
Pop quiz (I warned you): why did Snyder fail?
Well, because he didn’t understand the characters he was given, and decided to craft a film that suited his needs rather than the needs of the characters. It seems that DC and Warner Bros. have finally understood this with the success of Shazam!. Also, if the trailer of the upcoming Joker solo movie starring Joaquin Phoenix is any indication, they’ve given up on following cinematic trends and are honing on why we love these characters.
-Derek Luat Tran