June 18, 2018
Shazam (Not Batman) Will Save The DCEU
Warner Bros. needs to have faith in their endless catalog of superheroes if they want our love.
When it comes to the DC Extended Universe, we all have an opinion. Before Marvel took over the world with 2008’s Iron Man, Warner Bros. was top dog with their trinity of superheroic titans. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman defined the image of the spandex hero for decades. Why have they struggled to launch a shared universe experience on par with The Avengers?
That question has spawned a nearly endless stream of think-pieces. Just when you believe you could not possibly click on another know-it-all’s opinion on the matter, along comes a headline, and your index finger betrays you. The reason we can’t shut up about it and the reason we can’t help ourselves in consuming the infinite DC blog outcries is that we love these characters. We need them to succeed because we know they can. We’ve seen it before, and we want to see it again.
One would love to be a fly on the wall of the Marvel offices as they discuss the struggles of Justice League. Now, thanks to Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin’s Fat Man on Batman podcast, we have a little idea of how those conversations might sound. Avengers: Infinity War screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus popped by the show to celebrate their box office domination and offer a little insight as to how they might navigate the DCEU.
Markus reiterated just how unpopular the Marvel-owned characters were in 2008:
“I would look at what Marvel did, out of necessity, in that they didn’t have their A-list characters. They didn’t have Spider-Man, they didn’t have the X-Men, and they went down the line and found [other characters].”
Replicating the success of the MCU is no easy thing. Kevin Feige did not simply jump into a billion-dollar franchise. While Iron Man was a rollicking triumph, the stepping stones of The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were more than a little precarious. The road to The Avengers was bumpy but necessary. Those initial solo introductions focused on character so they could let loose with the world-ending devastation of the mega-event movies.
Before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we were privileged to seven previous live-action iterations of Batman (Lewis G. Wilson, Robert Lowery, Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale) and nine different Supermans (Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, David Wilson, Christopher Reeve, John Newton, Gerard Christopher, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, and Brandon Routh). Not to mention all the various animated adventures.
Batman and Superman are sure things, but they’ve had their turn in the spotlight. Markus believes it’s time for Warner Bros. to hang their suits in the closet, and let a few of the unknown DC heroes get their turn to shine.
“I might put Batman and Superman and everybody else — I mean, Wonder Woman is doing fine — aside for a second and go through the vast world and go ‘that guy, or that girl’ and go, ‘let’s just make a really good movie and not a universe and see what happens.’ You know, there’s a lot of spaghetti being thrown at the wall.”
He’s right; Wonder Woman is a damn good movie. That certainly helps. I would also argue that half of our excitement stems from the discovery of the character. Before Gal Gadot, Diana Prince had only been portrayed in live-action by two other actresses (Cathy Lee Crosby and Lynda Carter). No, I’m not counting failed pilots. The Amazonian was a tremendous relief from the male monotony.
Continuing to recycle the well of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent will poison the source. Let’s give the superhero staples a rest. The time has come for the DCEU to take some chances a la Ant-Man and Black Panther.
Being reminded last week by The Hollywood Reporter that there are at least two Joker movies in development is disheartening. Sure, Jared Leto is a fascinating watch in Suicide Squad, but Harley Quinn is the real stand-0ut character. Give me Birds of Prey instead. I would be lying if I said a Todd Phillips-directed, Joaquin Phoenix-starring Joker film was not appealing. That sounds bananas. I would allow Phoenix to terrorize any audience and in any guise.
Still, if the DCEU wants to make a serious play for the MCU, they need to put more faith in their catalog of characters. Wonder Woman and Aquaman are a step in the right direction. Embracing the personalities of heroes who have not been exhausted in pop culture naturally invites enthusiasm.
The audience is unburdened from anticipation. We are not trapped in our theater seats ticking down the runtime alongside the necessary references. Around every corner of Atlantis will be a fresh realization, or a delightful new character to obsess over.
The Justice League game was a distraction. The time has come to reach beyond the borders of everyday comic book hijinks. Marvel has the big-blue-beam-of-light-penetrating-the-sky-mega-event cornered. Warner Bros. should hop a genre, or at least squish a few together.
What Wonder Woman and Aquaman spark, The New Gods and Shazam will explode. Here is the potential for big, bold space opera as well as intimate, adolescent melodrama. The motivations fueling these heroes do not find their root in the obvious sagas of revenge and justice. With The New Gods, Ava DuVernay will drop Greek God morality as filtered through the mad sci-fi of Jack Kirby into the DCEU and the result could/should be as revolutionary as Guardians of the Galaxy.
Filling out the boots of “The Big Red Cheese,” Zachary Levi’s Shazam is a vital genre mash-up. Punching plus bittersweet childhood wish-fulfillment. The plot revolves around the young Billy Batson transformed into the colossal do-gooder Shazam via a Wizard’s magic word. The go-to logline floating around the film is “Big meets Superman,” and dang, that’s irresistible.
We don’t need another Batman. I love Matt Reeves, and I’m confident that whatever Dark Knight crusade he concocts will be worth the watch. However, if the goal is to breed a healthy universe of characters worthy of the occasional crossover event the DCEU needs to prove that its other creations are just as capable as that Gotham City loner. The icons are going nowhere, but they are in desperate need of some friends.
Warner Bros. has the might to wage war on the competition, but we do need a reason to love their Justice League. We need more characters and more room for them to breathe. Once they take hold, then we can talk about a “Crisis of Infinite Earths” or whatever.