WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Shazam!, in theaters now.
Warner Bros. so-called DC Extended Universe may be a bit of a mess, but you wouldn't know that by watching Shazam! The seventh installment of DC's shared cinematic universe handles the failure of Justice League differently than its more successful predecessors, and it works. The key is that the film allows audiences to interpret the references and Easter eggs however they want.
While Wonder Woman and Aquaman keep Zack Snyder's divisive films at arm's length, Shazam! leans into them. Instead of relying on subtle nods to established characters and continuity, the existence of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman are on full display. It's just that the movie allows viewers to pretend this isn't the DCEU at all, if they really want to.
The DC Universe known to comic readers is one populated by superheroes and supervillains. People trust the Justice League, and Batman and Superman loom large in the public consciousness. That's the kind of world in which Shazam! takes place, and it's a breath of fresh air when compared to other superhero films that barely reference their shared universe.
Freddy Freeman is something of a Justice League super-fan; he wears T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of superheroes, and carries a Superman backpack.
There's also a huge collector's market for memorabilia associated with those heroes. Freddy has a bullet that was fired at Superman, and a Batarang once thrown by the Dark Knight. He also collects newspaper clippings referencing Superman's battle in Man of Steel and his return from in Justice League. It's a very lived-in world.
The Greatest Cameo Ever
Many superhero movies thrive on cameos and crossovers. It was a fun in Ant-Man when Scott Lang showed up at Avengers headquarters and fought the Falcon. Thee DCEU has never had a moment like that, because either it's been an entire movie of Batman and Superman fighting, or else Justice League, which never truly earned the crossover. In a bit of a surprise, Shazam! delivers on what's been missing.
Superman has a looming presence in the movie, as Billy and Freddy find inspiration in the Man of Steel as they attempt to figure out how to be a superhero. When they try to determine how many new powers Shazam possesses, they look to to the Man of Steel: They know he can fly, is bulletproof, has super-strength, and can shoot lasers out of his eyes, so the two get to work to see whether Billy can do the same.
On a personal level, Superman is Freddy's hero. Billy knows that, so in order to help out his foster brother at school, he calls in a favor from the big guy himself. Not only does Shazam show up and claim to be Freddy's friend, the Man of Steel makes an appearance to offer support to a fan. At the end of the movie, we get the cameo we've been dying to see, and it's perfect.
Superman walks into the shot carrying a food tray, ready to have lunch with Freddy. Just before we get a chance to see his face, however, the credits role. It's a hilarious cameo, especially in the wake of Henry Cavill's departure from the role. Most importantly, Shazam! gives us the crossover feeling that the DCEU has lacked.
When the Credits Roll
Shazam! is so ingrained within the DC Extended Universe that even the credits help to convey that message. The credits take place within the confines of a high school notebook, and depict drawings of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and The Flash. The drawings come to life, showing Shazam fighting alongside the heroes of the Justice League.
Whether that's intended to depict the hero's continued adventures, or if someone is simply daydreaming is left unclear. It's actually not even that important, to be honest. What the credits show is that all these heroes actually do exist inside the world of Shazam!
Other entries in the DCEU make small nods to the other characters: Wonder Woman gets a letter from Batman; Amanda Waller complains about Superman. Even if it's just a cartoon, Shazam! actually shows these heroes interacting with each other. It helps to build a sense of connection between all of these films, especially after Wonder Woman and Aquaman gave us so little.
Where Are We, Really?
That said, aside from a Time magazine cover and newspapers in Freddy's memorabilia collection, Shazam! doesn't really reference the events of previous films. There is no instance of characters making mention of earlier films, the way Aquaman gives a passing nod to the events of Justice League. Instead, Freddy's collection is more Easter egg than crossover.
Superman, Batman and the rest of the Justice League may exist in Shazam!, but unless you're paying attention to every background reference, it doesn't really come off as the DCEU we have come to know. This is a world where Superman has died and returned, and the events of Man of Steel may have happened previously, but we can't really be sure. For the most part, this is simply a world in which these characters occupy the same space at the same time.
Perhaps hardcore fans will be disappointed by the lack of lore introduced by Zack Snyder, but the majority of moviegoers will likely be happy they don't have to follow a half-dozen films to understand this one. Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, audiences know there are other superheroes, but filmmakers don't need to make it a slog in order to enjoy a single installment.
Instead, Shazam! establishes a continuity that is both standalone and ... not. It appeases those who just want a simplistic action movie, while also placating to the uber-fans starving for a legitimate DC movie universe. You get a good story and the cool nods to go along with it, and in the end, it's the rare superhero movie that is accessible to everyone.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Shazam! stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, Zachary Levi as Shazam, Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, Djimon Hounsou as the ancient wizard Shazam, Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield, Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, Ian Chen as Eugene Choi, Jovan Armand as Pedro Peña, Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley, Cooper Andrews as Victor Vásquez, and Marta Milans as Rosa Vásquez.