Among the many great things about Shazam, two things in particular deserve praise: Its fantastic third act, and the fact that it kept almost every surprise in it a complete secret.
Before Shazam! came out, there were more than a few fans who felt a bit disgruntled at the lack of footage released for the film.
I wasn’t one of them, because even if we did have a whole seven months between the first and second trailer drop, that first trailer was enough to convince me that Shazam was a movie I definitely wanted to see.
Plus, if you’ve read any of my articles here, you know that I’m ride or die for the DCEU — which means I basically already know that I’m going to watch every single DCEU film on opening day, no matter what (before, even, if I can help it).
Even when the second trailer did drop in March, it focused mostly on the character of Shazam and gave very little away about either the main antagonist of Dr. Sivana or the plot.
And thank God for it, because many of the best parts of Shazam — whether in the third act or elsewhere — were a complete surprise.
The horror elements, the deep dive into the history of Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana and the ways in which Billy/Shazam were able to overcome him in the film’s final act were all completely absent from any of the major promotional material. What seemed initially like an oversight in marketing turned out to be a pretty damn smart and savvy way to draw audience members deeper into the film.
(Major spoilers for Shazam! ahead, obviously)
First of all, we have to talk about the horror elements of this movie.
This wasn’t just present in the third act — it actually comes quite early in the film — but I was so surprised and delighted by it that I want to mention it here.
A lot of the marketing for the film focused on the lighthearted tone and humor, so I went into this movie expecting to be charmed and amused — which I was.
What I wasn’t expecting was how much David Sandberg’s horror roots would come through, or how much I — the biggest 31-year-old wimp who actively avoids horror films — would love it when it did. The trailers and marketing for this film avoided giving too much away in terms of the villain of the movie, Dr. Sivana, and allowed us instead to be surprised when the true villains were revealed to be Dr. Sivana plus the Seven Deadly Sins of Man — monstrous creatures bent on manipulating mankind and also eating them (I think — PG-13 can only show us so much).
In fact, David Sandberg took us from surprised to outright shocked with his use of horror tropes. When Dr. Sivana strolled into that Sivana Industries boardroom and unleashed The Sins on an unsuspecting group of board members, I was expecting some kind of verbal showdown.
What I got was a very violent, physical showdown, culminating in that lingering shot on the frosted glass, with the victims screaming and desperately trying to escape — only to be violently yanked back and then abruptly silenced. It was as shocking as it was horrifying, and I loved it completely (even as I cowered in my seat).
The inclusion of the Seven Deadly Sins as a part of the force of bad guys that a newly-minted Shazam has to go up against was not only a way to up the stakes, but a truly fantastic way to bring in the best part of the movie — the Shazamily.
I don’t know if that’s actually what they’re called, but it’s fun and cheesy in a way that I think the movie would appreciate, so I’m going to stick with it.
If you were a savvy (read: obsessive) DCEU fan who spends a lot of time on Twitter, you probably had some inkling that the Shazamily would likely make an appearance in the film. I even mentioned the likelihood of such a thing happening in my primer on Shazam back in March.
But for those members of the general audience who don’t spend their entire lives on Twitter, the appearance of the Shazamily in the final act of Shazam! was a complete surprise — a plot point that hadn’t even been hinted at in any of the trailers or TV spots.
Even knowing it might happen didn’t compare to actually seeing it happen on screen. Of course I was looking forward to seeing the adult versions of each of Billy’s brothers and sisters on screen, but when it actually happened? Reader, I might’ve actually let out a cheer in the crowded theater.
And it’s not because Adam Brody was the perfect casting choice for an adult Freddy Freeman, even though he was. It also wasn’t because Meagan Good as an adult Darla was both endearing and funny, even though she was. It wasn’t even Ross Butler’s “Hadouken” as he shot out a ball of electricity, even though that is a fantastic moment that I can’t wait to see endlessly in GIF form.
It’s because the inclusion of the Shazamily was an evocative, wonderful, and wholly necessary component for the film. They weren’t shoehorned in as a fun little Easter egg or as a flashy plot point; instead, their introduction was an emotional climax of Billy’s character arc, a manifestation of Shazam’s central themes, and a way to bring different plot threads together.
We get to see Billy, a character who has spent nearly the entire movie convinced of the necessity of solitude and eschewing any real ties to his foster family, realize that his true power lies in opening his heart up to the family he has around him. We get to witness his foster siblings — some a little bit lost, some a little bit lonely — revel in the joy of being superheroes who can fly, shoot lightning and flex their superstrength.
And we get to cheer them on as they work together, kick a lot of ass, and defeat the big bad and the literal monsters who live within them.
The Shazamily was all these things, and yet the trailers did not once hint at them. They didn’t even trumpet the casting of the adult versions of the heroes, some of whom conjure up fond feelings with millennials like myself, and others who are quite popular with a younger crowd of audience members.
It’s a bold move for the film — keeping its best and most exciting parts under wraps — but it’s one that was the right move. The marketing for Shazam! didn’t fall into the trap of revealing all its best parts, which is a kind of restraint we don’t often see with major superhero films.
It would’ve been so easy, too, for Shazam! to justify revealing those big surprises in the trailers or in the lead-up to its release. After all, it’s a little-known property set in a universe that has a history of skepticism from both critics and general audience members. There could’ve easily been justification for enticing viewers with Adam Brody as a superhero (me, specifically, most of all) or scenes of the Seven Sins versus the Shazamily.
Instead, the film and its marketing team wisely decided to keep a majority of the plot and characters under wraps, so that even if we knew that this superhero movie — like all superhero movies — would end with the good guy beating the bad guy and everyone going home happy, we could still be surprised and excited by how it happens and who is involved.
Like Aquaman, Shazam! doesn’t lose momentum in its third act, but instead kicks it into high gear and delivers a final act without any stumbles and with a ton of surprises left unspoiled by any of the trailers. That’s a level of confidence in both the storytelling and the director that I relish, and something I hope to see more of in the future of the DCEU.
Now, bring on the sequels!