An odd thing happened to me the other night, shortly after the first “official” image of Zachary Levi in his Shazam! costume hit the net. I was walking home and I thought to myself, “I’m getting an oddly Deadpool vibe from this.” I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why, or what it was about the image that made me think this. After all, these two characters and their respective mythologies couldn’t be more different from one another.
Then I got home, sat at my computer, and started seeing some of the “Hot Takes” making the rounds about the “big reveal.” And I quickly learned that my internal conflict was actually playing out online. There were people who also saw the Deadpool-ishness of that image, and there were people angrily scoffing at that idea because of how preposterous that comparison is.
So I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to come up with the most succinct and articulate way to describe what I think people mean when they say “Shazam! will be DC’s Deadpool!” Then, last night, Shazam himself, Zachary Levi posted something on his Instagram that brilliantly captured why that sentiment exists- and how it can be a huge boon to the DCU brand.
Ladies and Gentlemen, if the first image of him in costume is Exhibit A, then this Instagram post by Levi is Exhibit B:
First of all, that’s a great photo manipulation that was making the rounds all day yesterday. But second of all, Levi’s embracing of it, followed by the hilariously winky way he used Instragram’s tagging feature, is a stroke of marketing genius. He tagged the actors currently playing Superman and Batman, Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck, as well as…Martha Stewart. Cause Martha.
It’s super clever, and it shows that Levi knows his audience. He’s embracing Batman v Superman, while also having some fun with one of its most buzzed-about moments. In short, the post was very much the kind of thing you’d expect to see Ryan Reynolds do while promoting one of his Deadpool movies, and it displayed the kind of social media savvy that should provide a fresh burst of energy to the DCU as the franchise prepares to softly reboot itself with the trifecta of Aquaman, Shazam!, and Wonder Woman 2.
But aside from Levi kind of demonstrating the Shazam!/Deadpool comparison, let’s talk a little bit more about the direction the DC film could be heading.
Just about everywhere you look, when it comes to David F. Sandberg’s film about the original Captain Marvel (that’s right, I said it), you’re given the impression that this is going to be the most overtly-comedic DC movie ever. And I don’t just mean in the current DCU canon, I mean ever (unless you want to count the unintentional hilarity of Halle Berry’s Catwoman, of course). Indeed, the creative team behind Shazam! seems very high on the idea of playing up the “What happens when a kid, who’s a total superhero fanboy, can suddenly take on the form of an adult man with God-like powers?” Or, as they put it, “It’s Big meets Superman!”
With that storytelling conceit, you can have all kinds of fun with the genre, because Billy Batson has presumably grown up watching superhero movies, reading comic books, and playing with action figures. You can have Billy, when he’s in Shazam! form, try to recreate his favorite superhero tropes- things like “Landing in a superhero pose,” “Save a kitten from a tree,” etc. And it can be built into the story in a humorous way by having them go wrong or awkwardly, since he is- after all- just a kid trying to act like a superhero.
While I’m sure what I’m describing will raise the ire of more traditional Shazam! fans, or folks hoping for something more mythic and grandiose, I think Sandberg and co. are going to go in a much more comedically juvenile direction. And it could work. It really could. It would work to instantly endear the character to fans who either don’t know who he is, or always thought of him as a Superman knockoff, and it works from a business perspective as part of the rebranding of the cinematic DC Universe, since they seem to want to get away from the reputation that “DC is daaaark, man.”
And for evidence that they don’t plan on “playing it straight” with Shazam! let’s return again to Exhibit A, which got this whole conversation started:
Now contrast it with these past “DC reveals” for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Suicide Squad, and the Justice League:
When you compare these to that first look at Shazam! it’s incredibly clear that they’re going for something very different with this movie. Just look at that very meta stare into the camera as he awkwardly slurps down his giant drink through a straw. It’s a facial expression and pose that conveys a very in-on-the-joke aesthetic.
And that is, perhaps, the best way to make this Deadpool comparison stick and why it’s in the studio’s best interest to actually lean into that: The Marketing.
When the first Deadpool came out in 2016, no one expected much from the film. It was a reboot of the character, yet still- bafflingly in terms of precedent- had the same actor that played the butchered version they wanted everyone to forget about from X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It was made for the bargain bin price of $69 Million, which subtly gave the impression Fox wasn’t that invested in the title. It was based on a character who was very niche, coming out in the graveyard month of February with Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse all set to open between March and May. On top of all that? It was rated R!
And yet, despite all of that, the film was a box office phenomenon that really captured the pop culture zeitgeist. The main reason for that? The marketing!
Ryan Reynolds and Fox devised a promotional campaign filled with off-beat stunts and gags meant to tell audiences “This is NOT your typical superhero movie. This is something special, fresh, and different.”
And with Shazam!, when you’re dealing with the premise of an average kid suddenly being able to act out his superhero dreams, you can have all kinds of fun with the marketing if you’re creative enough.
- You can have Zachery Levi appear on Ellen and do one of her signature segments where she sends a star out into a public setting and they have to say whatever Ellen tells them in their ear piece. Yet, for a Shazam! twist, you have Asher Angel- the actor playing Billy- be the one telling him what to say and do.
- You can cut a trailer that apes the tone of films like Man of Steel, then suddenly have it stop, have the “Intense Movie Voice” narrator get cut short and replaced by Billy’s voice, and then do a tonal 180 to show what kind of movie this really is.
- Have the marketing campaign center almost entirely on the fish-out-of-water, kid-in-an-adult-body conceit, building him up in the eyes of mainstream audiences as a charming, relatable, endearing, funny lead character.
Heck, Zachary Levi is already sort of doing all of this- tonally speaking- on his Twitter and Instagram accounts. With the backing of a studio like Warner Bros., and the creativity of some marketing executives, Shazam! could absolutely tap into a whole new audience; The same way Deadpool did for Fox’s X-Men franchise, and the way the first Guardians of The Galaxy did for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, by setting off everyone’s “What The…?” alarms before leading to huge box office results.
So give this all some thought the next time you hear someone suggest there’s a similarity between Deadpool and Shazam! because, if Levi’s social media activity and that initial first look at him in costume are any indication, that’s exactly what the studio wants. And if it somehow isn’t, and this is all a beautiful accident, it kind of definitely should be.
Please let me know your thoughts.
Thanks for reading,