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The DC Extended Universe Isn’t a Universe at All

With ‘Shazam!,’ the DCEU has officially stopped trying to be the MCU—and things have never been better

Getty Images/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Looking at the calendar releases for Marvel and DC Comics’ respective cinematic universes provides a perfect illustration for how these gigantic franchises have diverged from one another. Marvel began the year with Captain Marvel, a ’90s prequel that helps set the stage for the heroine’s appearance in Avengers: Endgame; the film bookends with a mid-credits scene that puts Brie Larson right in the thick of all things Thanos. Endgame arrives later this month. Then, in July, Marvel and Sony Pictures are set to release Spider-Man: Far From Home. The movie doesn’t lend itself to any big-picture implications for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the fact that the movie’s trailer hid the date on Peter Parker’s passport—just to avoid revealing the very obvious fact that he’s gonna survive Endgame—speaks to how interconnected these films are.

Meanwhile, fresh off the heels of Aquaman—the underwater acid trip that became the DC Extended Universe’s biggest box office success to date—Warner Bros. drops Shazam! this weekend. Shazam! is what happens if you remade Big, only instead of just getting older, Tom Hanks’s character also gained the ability to deadlift a bus. After Shazam!, the DCEU’s next offering is Joker, a movie starring Joaquin Phoenix that has overeager bloggers comparing it to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Aquaman, Shazam!, and Joker couldn’t be further apart. While not all MCU films embrace the exact same tones, there are enough similarities between them that tossing two dozen heroes into an Avengers flick isn’t a totally jarring experience. Conversely, it’s impossible to picture a DCEU movie in which a 14-year-old kid who got magic powers from a washed wizard and turned into Zachary Levi faces off against a scrawny Joker who looks like he stumbled off the set of a ’70s-era Martin Scorsese movie.

That’s not a problem for the DCEU, because integration isn’t something it wants to do. “Our intention, certainly, moving forward is using the continuity to help make sure nothing is diverging in a way that doesn’t make sense, but there’s no insistence upon an overall storyline or interconnectivity in that universe,” DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson told Vulture in 2017, following the warm reception to Wonder Woman. If you look at the upcoming slate for the DCEU—and good god, there are so many things—the one connection is a complete lack of connection. What’s really telling is that there’s no immediate plan for a Justice League sequel, not after it flopped relative to its high expectations. While Zack Snyder began the DCEU with gritty epics intended to fast-track that ill-fated Justice League movie, the new ethos for the DCEU—especially now that Snyder’s involvement has diminished—is to just make stuff that seems worthwhile and interesting. That’s how you can get Steven Spielberg to consider directing a World War II fighter pilot film under the DCEU banner or Michael Bay to helm a Lobo movie that should, given the man’s reputation, feature some explosions.

Of course, diverging from the interconnected style of the MCU is one thing; execution is another. And, well, if Wonder Woman and Aquaman were exciting steps in the right direction, Shazam! ensures this cinematic anti-universe will maintain forward momentum. Nobody will be clamoring for Shazam! to pull a Black Panther and get a Best Picture nomination next year, but it’s an endearing movie with an earnest message about family and acceptance that seems plucked from the Amblin Entertainment School of Coming-of-Age Tales. As a 14-year-old suddenly imbued with Supermanlike powers and the body of a buff adult, Billy Batson reacts to his abilities as any teenager would: He buys beer, visits a strip club (and comes away beaming about the chicken wings, because this thing is rated PG-13), and, with the help of his brother at his new foster home, uploads his superhuman exploits for viral hits on YouTube.

The character’s charming aimlessness—one of the movie’s best bits is Billy-as-Shazam shooting lightning bolts out of his hands for cash at Philadelphia’s Rocky steps to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger”—is a far cry from the larger, potentially world-ending stakes of Shazam!’s DCEU forebears. Even when Mark Strong’s villain shows up—presumably with the capability to destroy the world—Shazam! takes its hero’s approach and never resorts to apocalyptic doom and gloom. At his lowest, Billy acts like any young teen would: He gets scared. And then, like a true hero, he eventually musters the courage to face his enemy with the help of his newfound foster family, who are all very adorable.

There is a moment at the end of Shazam!—you’ll know it when you see it—when the film pokes fun at the idea of its shared universe. The nonspoiler way of putting it: There is a lot of Superman and Batman paraphernalia in this movie, and this is a world that clearly embraces the fact that heroes like that exist. The crucial distinction for Shazam! is that it doesn’t seriously expand the idea beyond Superman and Batman being public knowledge; the movie is perfectly content being its own fun little thing. As with Aquaman, the posts-credit stuff (there are two scenes, by the way) reflects what could transpire in a Shazam! sequel, rather than how this hero could join forces with other members of the DCEU.

Instead of being seen as a negative—even the DCEU doesn’t know what’s coming next—this lack of interconnectivity feels refreshing. For years, the DCEU was mimicking the Marvel approach with diminishing returns, punctuated by a Batman who murders criminals, Lex Luthor’s bringing a pee jar to a Senate meeting, and a punk Joker with a penchant for regrettable tattoos. Its recent string of success demonstrates that there’s more than one way to juggle a ton of superhero IP—so long as the DCEU is willing to tinker with its approach and do its own thing.

In taking its films one superhero or sad clown supervillain at a time without worrying about the big picture, the DCEU is walking a tightrope—if one of its one-off films disappoints, it will immediately resonate with comic book enthusiasts. At least when Thor: The Dark World sucked, you could hold out hope for fun Thor things in Age of Ultron. But the DCEU has been doing pleasantly well for itself in the wake of Justice League’s failure, and the flip side of this new strategic direction is that if something does arrive broken, there’s no need to fix it. Just scrap those parts, build something different, and move on to the next project. Shazam.