Since abruptly leaving the DC Extended Universe during the making of 2017’s ill-fated Justice League, Zack Snyder has been in the news primarily for his comments about how his plans for Superman, Batman, and company were vastly different than what Joss Whedon eventually delivered via rewrites and reshoots. (It should be noted that Snyder initially took some time off to deal with a family tragedy.) The most recent round of revelations from Snyder include Justice League plans that sound far outside the scope of even the mythical “Snyder Cut” that has certain fans tilting at windmills, and also that he’s not sympathetic to complaints about his version of Batman being overly murderous. His Batman was a disturbed grown man, not a children’s hero. He kills people, dammit.
Specifics of this argument aside (Tim Burton’s Batman also killed people, as did the first comics incarnation), Snyder’s comments struck a particularly strong contrast, accompanying as they did the run-up to the release of the newest DC superhero movie: Shazam!, a mostly lighthearted romp that riffs on the work of Penny Marshall (Big) instead of Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), and which stars Zachary Levi as the embiggened, superpowered version of 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Along with last year’s Aquaman, Shazam! seems intent on proving that the much-lamented grimness of Snyder’s DC movies is a thing of the past.
This could be read as simple course correction. After the studio scrambled to turn Snyder’s Justice League into its own Marvel-style crowdpleaser, later DC movies have simply been allowed to aim for endearing, instead of brainstorming new ways for Batman and Superman to wish each other bodily harm or death. But something else has changed beyond the tonal adjustments (some of which were probably inevitable regardless of what happened with Snyder’s films, unless he planned to personally write and direct every single one of these things). In a lot of ways, Shazam! is a pretty standard superhero picture, spinning out the first chunk of Spider-Man (unexpected powers acquisition, sense of responsibility, etc.) into a whole feature. What makes it distinctive in the current DC cycle is how it rewrites the series’ ideas about masculinity.
Shazam! isn’t revolutionary in this respect. Captain America, Ant Man, and Bruce Banner/The Hulk, to name just a few, offer a variety of competing masculine energies over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the Marvel movies are almost too idealistic to really grapple with the more toxic side of masculinity. The major characters with the highest levels of machismo, probably Tony Stark and Thor, could more broadly be described as arrogant, and they undercut that arrogance with quips—which makes them both charming and possibly also willful attempts to downplay gender and make them Marvel Heroes above all. That the 20 movies before Captain Marvel dealt largely (if not quite exclusively) with male heroes is more default-setting sexism than pointed ongoing exploration of how men express themselves.
DC movies may not be exploring those ideas consciously, either. But Snyder obviously wanted to go beyond Batman and Superman as stand-ins for adolescent power fantasies and wish fulfillment. He sees them as complicated, troubled adults, adrift in an unfeeling world, uncertain of how heroism can even be expected to function. Despite his ambitions, Snyder’s vision of these characters still have the tortured soul of adolescence; they seem to view masculinity as inextricable from a kind of gritted stoicism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with portraying the world’s most famous superheroes as alienated and struggling with their grimly expressed emotions; that’s kind of modern-day Batman’s whole thing (again, see the Burton versions), and Superman is a big enough character to accommodate lots of interpretations. The hitch is that Snyder has never been a graceful dramatist, and eventually turned Batman V. Superman into a series of weird masculine flexes: Batman forging Kryptonite weaponry; Superman giving him stern talking-to and outright threatening him; the inevitable team-up facilitated by a weird bout of punch-therapy, during which both parties are allowed to express furious, vengeful concern over what they may or may not be saying about each other’s moms. The fascinating and misguided Batman V. Superman is the most actively toxic of the new DC movies, but Snyder’s more restrained, Batman-free Man Of Steel also ties Superman into manly knots over the burden of his godlike abilities, with the old-school masculinity of Kevin Costner on hand to play a dad who tells him maybe it’s not worth saving people and revealing his powers.
Shazam! is more literally an adolescent power fantasy than just about any big-screen incarnation of Superman or Batman, especially the recent ones. Billy Batson is an actual adolescent who suddenly gets a lot of powers and uses it to fulfill a variety of 14-year-old boy fantasies (adulation from strangers; revenge against bullies; buying beer and going to a strip club, even if these activities aren’t quite as he envisioned them). But the movie more directly connects Billy’s struggle to fulfill his superheroic responsibilities to his struggle to move toward functioning adulthood, however tentatively—something that, in this telling, doesn’t so much require making tough choices and accepting the torturous burden of his abilities as behaving with greater kindness and empathy.
When Billy first acquires his powers—morphing into a muscular, bulletproof, super-strong man whenever he calls out “Shazam!”—Levi’s work seems to imitate, and even share some weaknesses with, the Tom Hanks performance in Big. That is to say, suddenly an adolescent very much caught between childhood and adulthood is behaving more like an excitable 10-year-old, with the difference in Shazam! even more noticeable because Billy is supposed to be a hardened street kid rather than a coddled product of the suburbs. But the movie acknowledges this discrepancy through Billy’s new foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who points out that before becoming a superhero, Billy was kind of a dick to him, and has been a lot friendlier in his pretend-grown guise. Though the movie gets some mileage out of the charming gap between Levi’s adult appearance and his immature behavior, it’s not really portrayed as negative until Billy starts to neglect his new friends/family—and keeping his foster-kid pain and disappointment to himself, like a starter-kit version of the Snyder Batman and Superman, who spend a lot of time simmering their brooding into rage. Billy has plenty of anger beneath the surface, but it’s not weighed down with self-importance, and the movie actually seems interested in resolving it coherently.
Shazam! also feels unembarrassed about its superhero’s image, turning some stylistic limitations into another thematic counterpoint to its predecessors. Compared to the sleeker bulk of this universe’s Batman and Superman, the muscled, Shazam’d version of Billy looks, well, a bit like Zachary Levi in a padded-out superhero costume. But Billy isn’t expected to become more “serious,” more stereotypically battle-hardened and male, in order to become worthy of his powers. If anything, he’s allowed to be goofier even as he mans up for his final battle, and that goofiness comes from behavior rather than zippy one-liners. It’s a neat companion piece to Captain Marvel (whose moniker, decades ago, once belonged to Shazam), where Carol Danvers triumphs by ignoring what her male mentor has been drilling into her head about not using any emotion in battle. Neither 2019 incarnation of Captain Marvel behaves entirely the way that we’ve been trained to think “serious” superheroes behave.
None of this makes Shazam! a great movie, any more than Captain Marvel is. Like plenty of MCU pictures, a lot of Shazam! is well-worn formula, and it undermines some of its stronger points by including several interesting female characters without giving any of them a real role. Though the new DC movies got into the female-superhero game a lot faster than Marvel, they’re still very much a boys’ club for now. (Their current 2020 lineup of Birds Of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 suggests another sea change, perhaps a more grown-up version of their younger-skewing DC Superhero Girls franchise, which has hit books, TV, and the internet, but not movie theaters.)
But in a series that was initially defined by Zack Snyder’s tortured-man take on Superman and the hasty addition of a constantly grimacing Batman, it is impressive that the DC movies have since been able to offer more styles of masculinity, from the respectful (and non-superpowered) awe that Steve Trevor shows in Wonder Woman to a surprisingly cuddly and nontoxic take on the badass-bro version of Aquaman to the sweet-natured heroism of Shazam! that prioritizes decency and cooperation over brooding. This is arguably a more Saturday-morning-cartoon set of takeaways for its audience, but Shazam! progresses past the roiling (and unconvincing) angst more naturally than the abrupt transition of Justice League did. Before that point, Snyder seemed intent on looking at superheroes through a deconstructionist’s lens, trying to address the genre’s lack of moral complexity. If that meant Superman and Batman indulged in toxic masculinity, well, wasn’t that a realistic outgrowth of their status as godlike men? It’s a fair point, though also one that Batman V. Superman was almost entirely incapable of addressing without glorifying its own masculine aggression. Shazam! confirms that, at very least, it’s possible to redefine the terms of superhero masculinity without burning that whole world down.