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The DCU’s Aquaman, Shazam and Harley Quinn Are Reluctant Heroes Done Right

Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Zachary Levi’s Shazam and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn display DC’s ability to tell stories that focus on relu  ctant heroes.

From the early days of the DC Universe back in 2013 with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel all the way to the present, with Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam, it’s clear that DC doesn’t shy away from centering its films around reluctant heroes. Three prime examples — Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Zachary Levi’s Shazam and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn — have been major components of the DCU for years and, in their own unique ways, have shown how reluctant heroes can make for worthwhile storytelling. But more importantly, they’ve proven how to do these kinds of characters justice.

Momoa’s presence in DC’s cinematic world stretches back to 2016 with the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Integral to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Momoa starred in a solo Aquaman film in 2020 and will return in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Levi, who portrays Shazam, a comic book version of Tom Hanks’ Big and, in addition to his ties to Black Adam, will come back to the silver screen early next year in Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Finally, Margot Robbie, whose character has moved far past being The Joker’s girlfriend to an antihero in her own right, has helped propel Harley Quinn up the ranks of DC’s most popular characters.

Jason Momoa’s Aquaman Helped Make the Character Cool Again
Beginning with Momoa’s take on Arthur Curry/Aquaman, audiences were treated to a very different take on perhaps one of the most ridiculed superheroes in pop culture. Taking cues from the character’s comic book portrayal in the ’90s (back when he had a hook for a hand), Momoa reintroduced Aquaman as a powerful warrior, a defender of the oceans and the true king of Atlantis. In all this time, whether in more serious fare like Zack Snyder’s Justice League or a more lighthearted setting like James Wan’s Aquaman, Momoa has maintained Arthur’s begrudging, lone-wolf nature.

A child of two worlds, Momoa’s character is caught between humanity and his Atlantean heritage. The actor brings to life an Aquaman, who, for good reasons, mostly wants to remain under the radar. Soon, though, he is forced to grapple with his destiny as King of the Seven Seas. His boisterous, unkempt demeanor has him initially at odds with Amber Heard’s Mera, but the two eventually develop a romantic relationship and save Atlantis from Arthur’s half-brother, Orm. Even though Arthur wants nothing to do with Atlantis, he soon sees that he’s the only one who can make things right and avoid a global conflict between Orm’s forces and humanity.

Zachary Levi Helps Convey Shazam’s (Literal) Inner Child
Levi as Shazam is Billy Batson’s adult, superheroic form. Asher Angel, in the role of Billy, at first resents his magical calling and essentially refuses to take his powers seriously, opting for childish high jinks. Telling a DC Comics story from the point of view of younger people helps keep the fantastical elements grounded. And all the kids in Shazam! behave like real kids, allowing the audience to maintain sympathy for Billy.

Being by nature someone who’s basically been on the run all his life after being abandoned by his mother, Billy has difficulty acclimating to his new foster family. But throughout the movie, especially due to his burgeoning friendship with Freddy, played by Jack Dylan Glazer, Billy proves himself worthy of the powers of Shazam. Inherently a caring, kind character, Billy’s occasional childishness bubbles up to the surface. But after defeating Dr. Sivana, Levi helps carry over Billy’s growth, establishing Shazam as a bona fide DC superhero.

Margot Robbie’s Huge Talent Has Made Her Synonymous with Harley Quinn
Robbie’s Harley Quinn, debuting in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, headlining Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey and coming back in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad just last year, has gone through massive shifts but still retains the core of what makes her so special. After getting dumped by The Joker in Birds of Prey, Harley’s arc shifted from villainy to anti-heroism. That wasn’t just a simple switch from bad to good — it displayed both on Robbie’s and the creative team’s part, a desire to let Harley develop on her own without any specific plot constraints.

By having to exist outside her comfort zone and meeting and opening up to new characters like Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, Birds of Prey highlights Robbie’s dedication to her character as well as her impressive range. Returning in Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Robbie giddily jumps back into DC’s world, further developing her mannerisms as Harley and underscoring the character’s humor, energy and fighting prowess. The continuity details may be a bit murky at this time, but Harley Quinn shows that given the right company, even a former arch-villain can turn a new, more positive leaf.

Aquaman, Shazam and Harley Quinn Prove DC Knows What It’s Doing
Henry Cavill’s tenure as Superman, while extremely popular now, was at first criticized for its supposedly dismal tone. With Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Cavill’s Superman had to deal with a mixed response from humanity after his reveal during the battle of Metropolis with General Zod. Adding this layer of complexity to Superman uncovered an intriguing depth to the mythos. But thankfully, DC has continued, to at least some extent, to emphasize this kind of attention to detail and emotional content with its other characters.

Moving past Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and treating Aquaman, Shazam and Harley Quinn in a three-dimensional manner helps lift these characters out of the mediums they’re typically portrayed in. In fact, the DCU has been crafting successful, exciting films with characters that many people either didn’t know much about or didn’t take seriously. From the perspective that being a true hero takes time and effort, these three characters are great variations of the traditional hero’s journey. They prove that being reluctant (at first) doesn’t make a hero any less super.

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