How Shazam! and Aquaman Saved the DCEU

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– By Tyler Carlos –

It sure has been a long road for the DCEU. Since Christopher Nolan’s trilogy masterpiece wrapped up in 2012, DC has been doing its best to keep up with the massive success of Marvel’s cinematic universe, but to no avail. No matter how far DC gets, Marvel always seems to get the best of them. Even with the early successes of Man of Steel and Wonder Woman, the massive disappointments of both Justice League and Suicide Squad, along with the recent rumors that there have been major shake-ups and troubles with the DC lineup, made it seem like DC might be down for the count.

What Happened?

It’s no secret that the DCEU has gone through several difficulties. Fresh off the major success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight masterpiece, it seemed as though fans were clamoring for more gritty takes on classic superheroes; however, just because fans loved the Dark Knight for it’s dark realism did not mean that every hero would fit the mold. After all, in 2013, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is known for its blend of both action and comedy, had already been around for 5 years. So when DC decided to go with a darker route with Superman to start up the DCEU, it should not have been a surprise that it didn’t do as well as expected. Sure, it was a box office success, but mixed reviews, inconsistent pacing, and lack of humor didn’t sit as well with audiences as DC undoubtedly hoped.

Desperate to get back in the game, DC decided to re-introduce the world to Batman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Initial reaction to the film was pure excitement, for this was a live-action team up that hadn’t yet been brought to the big screen; however, DC’s decision to go with an older and experienced Batman, to be played by Ben Affleck, started to put doubt in people’s minds. On top of that, DC cast Jesse Eisenberg as the infamous Lex Luthor, which was simply bad casting. And with the introduction of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, the set up of other characters in the DCEU, in the end, DC tried to to put too much into one movie. After the release, everything turned out okay despite the mixed reviews. Gal Gadot was highly celebrated for her role as Wonder Woman, and there was hope that DC would build upon this.

Then it all turned sour. The next film to be released was David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, which couldn’t be saved despite a top-notch performance by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. The film just couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a comedy or a drama, was riddled with bad pacing and a bad Joker, and received predominantly negative reviews.

This is where the public’s opinion of DC really began to shift. These are characters that the masses have enjoyed for decades- how were so many things going wrong? Well, it all came back to the studio. Warner Brothers was clearly beginning to take a firmer grip in how the movie’s were edited. Suicide Squad was introduced as a dark and gritty action flick, not comedic and psychedelic. But by 2016, the MCU was 8 years in and just killing it at the box office – and DC wanted to catch up. So they decided to give Suicide Squad a comedic twist in post, which backfired completely. This was thought to be DC’s lowest point.

Hope returned with Wonder Woman the next year. The film received both rave reviews and cleaned up at the box office. It was the first live action Wonder Woman film ever, and it has since gone down as one of the best superhero films to date. It was lighter in tone, action-packed, and frankly, allowed the audience to have fun while watching it. Whether you were a DC or Marvel fan, you couldn’t deny that this was just a good movie – one of the best that DC had made since The Dark Knight.

But then, the unthinkable happened. DC’s next film was the now infamous Justice League. The movie was just riddled with controversy after controversy, beginning with Zack Snyder’s firing during post-production because WB was not happy with the film, to Joss Whedon’s unnecessary reshoots. On top of that, these reshoots, which he did while Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, had a full on Tom Selleck-like mustache that he could not shave and which therefore had to be CGIed out. The first shot of Justice League shows the results of this and, let me tell you, it set the tone for the rest of the movie. Justice League was a disaster for DC. What should have/could have been a massive financial success for DC turned out to cost them an estimated $60 million.

And now, we’re about a year and a half later and people are still begging for the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League. The cut that was not ruined by the problem that had been plaguing DC for years – Warner Bros.’s interference.

Redemption

Everything changed when Aquaman hit the big screen. Aquaman was a massive success for both DC and the superhero genre. Not only did it garner the best reviews DC had seen since Wonder Woman, but it became the DCEU’s first billion-dollar movie, earning over $1.1 billion at the international box office before leaving theaters. And with this overwhelming success, DC has already begun work on both a sequel AND a spinoff.

With Aquaman’s overwhelming success, there was a lot riding on DC’s next theatrical release Shazam!. And, especially considering the hero was a relative unknown, the film did indeed deliver. In fact, Shazam! turned out to be one of DC’s best. Not only did it receive overwhelmingly positive reviews, second only to Wonder Woman, but after just four weeks in theaters, it has earned over $345 million at the worldwide box office since its release on April 5.

It’s true that this may not be anywhere near the financial success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but the film has already made decent profit and has many weeks left to go at the box office. On top of that, Shazam! had one of the lowest production budgets of any superhero film, just $100 million, so the financial risk was well below the norm. But what really set Shazam! above the rest were those strong reviews. As I mentioned, they were the best DC had had since Wonder Woman, and has led DC to already begin work on a sequel. With the lowered expectations, Shazam! certainly over delivered, and I would put money on the sequel beating the original.

What Changed?

DC has clearly begun to learn from its past mistakes. They’ve realized one of the most important aspects about building their cinematic universe – each individual film has to be good. It has to be its own story. It has to serve its own purpose before it serves the purpose of the franchise. This is clearly why Aquaman and Shazam have been so well received. Well that, and the fact that DC is finally allowing its characters to have just a little bit of fun. DC has been trying to figure out the humor thing for a while, and it seems like they’ve finally solved the formula.

But if there is one thing that has truly changed DC for the better, it’s that DC has finally begun to re-embrace what lies at the core of the entire superhero genre – the belief that there is a hero in all of us. And Aquaman and Shazam! are the perfect examples of the two sides of this.

Aquaman is the reluctant hero. He knows he has power, and he knows that he is “special,” and yet he doesn’t know his place in the world. He believes he isn’t a man of the land, nor does he believe is a king of sea. As his journey of self-discovery continues, however, the people around him show him that he is actually both. He is the hero both of his people need, and he chooses to embrace that. He doesn’t believe he is worthy to be king, and it is that which actually makes him worthy.

Shazam!, on the other hand, is the chosen hero. His power was literally forced upon him by a dying wizard, and the only person that could possibly help him to understand this new power is a person that is, perhaps, more worthy of it. But while his abilities start out as fun and games, he begins to understand the importance of power as others seek to take it from him for their own use. In the end, he chooses to embrace his power and share it with the ones he loves, and become someone worthy of the power he’s been given.

These two themes, the reluctant hero and the chosen hero, were seriously lacking in a few of the DC films – primarily Suicide Squad and Justice League. Superhero movies should make us believe that there is a hero inside each of us. That no matter what, the power of good will always prevail. As DC moves forward, we can only hope that they continue building upon what the filmmakers learned while making Aquaman and Shazam!. If they do, then there can be little doubt that the sun will shine again on the DCEU.

About the Author

Tyler Carlos is a proud nerd originally from Baton Rouge, LA. He completed his undergraduate in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University, and graduated from JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing in 2016. In his off time, he enjoys Crossfit, escape rooms, and watching Gotham and This Is Us. His ultimate goal in life is to learn how to fly.

For more articles by Tyler, click here.

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