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With ‘Shazam!’, DC Takes a New Page Inspired by Longtime Comic Book Rival Marvel

Unless an all-powerful super-villain shows up at the last minute to foil his plans, Shazam is poised to hit theaters this weekend like a bolt of lightning.

The family-aimed Shazam!, featuring the long-running DC Comics crimefighter, has already pulled in more than $3 million from early sneak previews. Initial reviews are encouraging, with many critics praising the movie’s relatively light touch. As a result, Shazam! is expected to earn well over $40 million before Sunday night is over.

But Shazam! isn’t notable solely for its imminent box office success. The film—about the teenaged Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) who transforms into the not-quite-grown-up superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi)—is also the latest evidence of a creative overhaul on the part of Warner Bros., the studio that serves as a home for DC Entertainment. Last December, Warner Bros.’ lush-looking Aquaman became a worldwide hit, pulling in more than $1 billion globally, according to Box Office Mojo. And hopes are high for next June’s colorfully retro Wonder Woman 1984, in which Gal Gadot’s hero will battle the evil Cheetah, played by Kristen Wiig.

They’re all part of a brightly lit rebirth for the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, which just a few years ago was experiencing a dark night of the soul. The first Wonder Woman film, directed by Patty Jenkins, was a critical and commercial triumph in the summer of 2017, eventually making more than $400 million in the United States. But its follow-up, Justice League, was a Motherboxin’ disaster, full of run-amok CGI and forced banter. The movie brought together numerous DC heroes, and was intended to be the first entry in a Justice franchise. Instead, it marked the latest muddled masked-hero adventure for Warner Bros., which had spent hundreds of millions on pricey downers like 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

With those films, Warner Bros. hoped to create an interconnected, ongoing big-screen saga, similar to the one found in the movies made under the banner of its longtime, semi-friendly nemesis: Marvel. Ever since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has engineered the Marvel Cinematic Universe so that entries like Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming play off and weave into one another—making each film essential viewing for fans, and building up to all-star epics like this month’s Avengers: Endgame. The combined Marvel movies have earned billions, and last year’s Black Panther landed an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

Marvel Studios’ interlocked-story approach reflects what Marvel Comics has been doing in print for decades. “The Marvel Universe is staggeringly intricate,” notes Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “The different comics are all part of one over-arching story, and the comics of 2019 acknowledge what transpired in the comics of 1989. This was great for creating obsessive fans who compulsively consumed everything and sweated over the details, like a legion of binge-TV watchers waiting for Netflix to come along.”

But DC Comics, Howe says, took a different approach with its titles, often shunning long-running narratives, and occasionally trying “ditch the baggage of previous clunkers.” And DC has regularly reinvented its on-screen heroes, as well. In 1989, Warner Bros. and director Tim Burton helped craft the modern superhero blockbuster with Batman, part of a franchise that cycled through different filmmakers—and three different Batmans—before ending in 1997’s calamitous Batman & Robin. Less than a decade later, DC and Warner Bros. managed to reboot the franchise with Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight Trilogy, a critically acclaimed series of Batman films that won over critics, Oscar voters, and audiences: Both 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises earned more than $1 billion worldwide.

But in the years that followed, DC’s films fell into a rut—as did some of its best-known superstars, who slogged through such brutalist, CGI-assisted epics as Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. Those were directed by Zack Snyder, who delighted in plunging Superman (played by Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) into a seemingly infinite amount of crises: They battled existential dilemmas; stared down world-shattering, high-fatality disasters; and occasionally pummeled each other senseless in darkly lit urban arenas. “DC saw how well the Dark Knight Trilogy was received, and thought, ‘That’s our take: Dark, gritty, and realistic,” notes author Adam Lance Garcia, a producer at Yahoo Entertainment, and long-time comics fan. “But Snyder is not Christopher Nolan. Snyder’s grittiness is more violent. His grittiness is making his characters go, ‘Woe is me. Why am I carrying this burden?'”

Snyder’s DCEU movies for Warner Bros., Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, combined earned more than $1.5 billion worldwide. And 2016’s jumbled Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer, also performed well. Yet the downbeat DCEU films alienated some fans, and many reviewers, with their solemn tone and somber moments of bombast: The New York Times described the grim Batman v Superman as being “about as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head.” Suddenly, there was a lot more baggage to ditch.

By the time Justice League appeared in 2017, a sense of gloom had settled in over the DC films. The movie brought together the now-mostly miserable-seeming Batman and Superman, along with Aquaman, Cyborg, the Flash, and Wonder Woman—the latter of whom had just starred in her own far more uplifting standalone film. But even without that tonal mismatch, Justice League was a troubled production. Snyder stepped away from Justice League after a family tragedy, and Warner Bros. recruited Avengers director and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon to handle reshoots, leading to a reported final price tag of around $300 million.

The resulting film was a jumbled mess, its characters sometimes seeming as though they were in a half-dozen different movies at once. Justice League opened at No. 1, only to quickly decline at the box office, exiting the top 10 in less than two months. DC and Warner Bros., which together helped invent the superhero-movie phenom, were in need of a dramatic change, one it had already quietly gotten underway. “Ever since the decision to dramatically reshoot Justice League, they’ve been trying to move themselves away from Snyder’s vision,” says Garcia.

Shazam! represents what DC’s next phase might look like. The movie isn’t concerned with being tied to a larger, Justice League-style mega-movie. Initially, Garcia says, “DC learned the wrong lesson from Marvel, which was, ‘Everything needs to be building toward something.’ They were trying to force a shared universe to happen.” But with movies like Aquaman, and now Shazam!—which Garcia has already seen—the company “has finally learned the right lessons from Marvel.” The more recent DC films are more in the vein of Marvel adventures like Ant-Man, which are part of a bigger story, but work well as standalone films. And, like 1978’s classic original Superman, the latest DC hits aren’t trying to hit you over the head with a sink; Garcia says Shazam! is more Goonies than gloomy. “It really embraces both the joy and the heart at the center of the character,” he says.

Of course, the DCEU could quickly darken once again: At this week’s CinemaCon, fans got their first look at this fall’s Joker, directed by The Hangover‘s Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix. Given that Phillips described the movie as “a tragedy,” and that Phoenix isn’t exactly known for his upbeat performances, the movie probably won’t earn any Goonies comparisons. Meanwhile, a new and as-yet-uncast Batman film is in the works, overseen by Matt Reeves, who directed two affecting yet very stark entries in the recent Planet of the Apes series.

But for now, DC’s movie universe is more upbeat than it’s been in years. “DC’s heroes, even when they weren’t relatable, were paragons of virtue, and fun—not an easy combination,” notes Howe. “But when the fun vanished, all that was left was iconography and bad vibes—nothing we need more of in 2019. Shazam! gets DC back on the right track by restoring not just humor, but also a kindness of spirit.”