The promise of a “standalone” movie within a greater cinematic universe can be tricky. But DC has been doing a good job with its recent “solo” superhero installments, namely Wonder Woman and Aquaman, where you can start with those movies even though their title characters were previously introduced and had significant screen time in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.
With Shazam!, which opens in theaters on April 5, we get to meet a main character we’ve never seen before, at least not in this franchise - and that allows the movie to be a unique and special piece of the DC Extended Universe. During our visit to the set of Shazam! last year, we learned a few ways in which it’s different from everything that’s come before and what that means for the future of the DCEU.
Shazam! Truly Stands Alone
You can technically watch any installment of the DCEU without having seen the previous movies. But even Wonder Woman, which primarily takes place before Batman v Superman, and Aquaman, which breaks off into its own distinct world following the events of Justice League, both benefit from a certain familiarity with their heroes’ prior appearances. Shazam!, though, is entirely its own thing - at least for now.
“You don't have to have seen any of the other films, because it's its own contained story, really,” Shazam! director David Sandberg said while taking a break from filming. “This movie's mostly just about introducing Billy Batson and Shazam, who he is and how he came to be. Yeah, it takes place in this DC world, where all these heroes exist, but in some ways, it's both sort of self-contained while also being a part of something bigger.”
The Story Stays Local
One of the ways Shazam! stays self-contained is that it sticks to its specific spot in that greater DC world. There are no intergalactic threats or world wars or quests that take our hero around the globe and across the seven seas. Everything is pretty much set in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which itself is unique for the DCEU in that it's a real place instead of a fictional location like Metropolis or Gotham City.
“It's a very sort of personal story, which I like because I find it more engaging when it's not like an entire world and everything, like a blue beam in the sky and Robin coming in,” Sandberg explained about the scope of Shazam! “So, it's fun where this whole carnival is in danger and all these people, and you can be saved, and it's more manageable, and I think it's more engaging as well.”
The Tone is Much Different
Since the release of Batman v Superman, the DCEU has had a reputation for being dark — maybe even too dark for some fans. With Wonder Woman, the franchise has started to lighten up, however, and last year’s Aquaman took the brand even further into the levity that many comic book movie audiences prefer. Now Shazam! promises to be the most “fun” of all. But this was always going to be the case, according to Sandberg.
“It's such a separate film that I don't think it changed anything, really,” he said when asked if the more comedic Shazam! is meant as a response to criticisms about Justice League and other past DCEU installments. “It's very different from Justice League. It's still the same universe, but just has a very different tone.” He added that it’s not all light and airy, either. “It's a fun movie. It’s not like a pure comedy, because you still have those touches [of] some pretty dark subjects.”
“He's always been a little bit more fun and a little bit more family centric,” DC chief creative officer and former Shazam! comics writer Geoff Johns acknowledged in video presentation shared with press during the set visit.
Shazam Has Other Things On His Mind
Despite Shazam! taking place in the same world in which all the cataclysmic events of the DCEU, from Man of Steel on, have occurred, Billy Batson has his own problems to worry about. He hasn’t given much thought to the other superheroes existing outside of Philly or even his own personal bubble.
“Oddly enough, Billy isn’t a big superhero aficionado,” Zachary Levi, who plays Shazam, explained when asked about the character’s interest in Superman and Batman and the rest of the Justice League. “Billy’s been so obsessed with trying to find his parents, trying to find his family. And he’s lived on the streets quite a few times in between all that. To him, that stuff is going on, but he’s not caring so much about that.”
The Stakes Are Still High
Once he’s chosen to be Shazam, Billy takes a while to understand the responsibility of his powers. He doesn’t immediately go off to save the world from aliens. But the movie isn’t just a funny look at what happens when a kid is granted superpowers. Shazam! has a villain — Dr. Sivana, played by Mark Strong — and he’s quite a threat, maybe not to the entire Earth (yet?) but to everything that Billy Batson cares about in his limited vicinity.
“There’s some great comedy to be had with that idea that a 14-year-old boy in a grown up man’s body doesn’t really understand or is able to cope with his powers,” Strong said. “I think Sivana should be like heat-seeking ballistic evil. The more frightening you make him, the more you feel that the kids are in jeopardy, and therefore the more that morality term of balance of good and evil plays out satisfactorily. I think if he ever steps back and takes his foot off the gas of being dark, it doesn’t serve the purpose of the story, which is what he needs to be a terrifying nemesis.”
And the Action Sequences Are Still Grand
Even within the specific location of Philadelphia, the action set pieces take place in relatively contained spaces, such as the winter carnival Sandberg mentioned and an earlier fight scene set in the perfect spot for a superhero with the soul of a kid: a toy store inside a shopping mall. But while such action sounds smaller in scope, they aren’t any less thrilling to watch. Ferris wheels are smashed, buses are crashed, fists are wielded.
“I love the fact that we were literally crashing through mirrors, crashing through walls into toy stores,” Strong said of the mall sequence. “[Levi] was throwing toys at me and flying out of windows. I mean the physicality I love, because there’s the possibility, obviously, because [of] the powers they possess, they could end up standing at either end of the room and just fire electricity at each other. I’m not saying that they don’t do that, but it’s wonderful that we get close up and dirty as well and there is some proper hand-to-hand combat as well. Those scenes I love very much.”
The Rest of the DCEU is Felt
Shazam! wants to stand on its own, but there are regular reminders that the movie is set within the DCEU. From reports seen on TV to less-direct Easter eggs, you’ll be fully aware that Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest are out there somewhere. One of the characters in the new movie, Billy’s friend and foster brother Freddy, provides the most explicit references as a Justice League expert (Superman is his favorite) who gets to join in the fun of Billy’s transformation.
“[I’m] kind of like a sidekick, or his Alfred,” Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Freddy, said on the set while wearing an Aquaman t-shirt as part of his character’s wardrobe. “I feel like Alfred in Batman, like I know everything. It’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s gonna be hiding there, and he’s gonna be over there.’ Because I know all about this [stuff], and I plan everything out. So yeah, I do feel like that. It’s pretty cool.”
One place to look for acknowledgment of the rest of the DCEU is in the toy store fight sequence, where existing DC superhero toys became props with different significance in that world. “Everything exists that we had in there,” Sandberg stated of the toys in the store, none of which were created for the movie. “It's all these, yeah, DC toys. They’re all sort of real DC toys that are in there. I mean, some were like, ‘Hey, you can't have that character, because that character's not in the universe yet. You have to stick to these characters.”
So don’t expect to see any Green Lantern toys. Or any Green Lantern Easter eggs, even (aside from Strong having been in the 2011 movie), according to Sandberg.
Shazam! Won’t Always Be This Separate
Obviously, we didn’t learn anything about the ending of Shazam! or any post-credits scenes or any other way the movie might set up either a standalone sequel or Shazam’s joining of the rest of the DCEU. Sandberg couldn’t really comment on the character’s eventual, expected face-off against Dwayne Johnson as Shazam nemesis Black Adam, maintaining that the goal with this movie was introducing Billy and his heroic alter ego.
One of the stars of Shazam! did express his hopes of finding himself in the greater cinematic universe, though. “Just to be in this movie is absolutely amazing and I'm so excited,” Asher Angel, who plays Billy, said humbly before adding, “And if there are more movies to come, then heck yeah!” Which DCEU stars is he anxious to meet when that happens? "Gal Gadot is definitely one,” he admitted. “Ben Affleck would be really, really cool. But I'm going to have to go with Henry [Cavill], though.”