How 'Shazam!' Became a Holiday Family Movie in the Bleak DC Universe
Remember for a moment how the DC franchise began: Superman mourning over the body of his nemesis, Zod, after snapping his neck in Man of Steel. In the films that followed, from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to Justice League, baroque ruminations of godhood eclipsed the sort of humor, fun, and adventure one often finds in a comic book. Even Aquaman, for all its cheese and octopus drumming, was still about an heir claiming the throne from a bloodthirsty tyrant.
So how did Shazam!, the latest movie in the DC “Extended Universe,” get to lighten up a franchise that rarely registers as fun? If you ask director David F. Sandberg, it’s because of one thing: He got to make the movie he wanted to make.
“What the studio was saying from day one was, ‘Make the best Shazam! movie,’” Sandberg tells Inverse. “It seems to me that’s where DC is going now.”
"I was very happy we only needed to focus on Shazam! — David F. Sandberg
Out in theaters on April 5, Shazam! brings to life one of the most popular superheroes in the history of comics. Introduced in 1940, a year before the U.S. entered World War II, “Shazam” is an orphan boy named Billy Batson (played in the film by Asher Angel) chosen by a wizard to inherit his powers, which allows him to morph into an adult-sized, muscled titan (Zachary Levi) upon yelling out loud, “Shazam!”
In the Golden Age of comics, Shazam — then named Captain Marvel — was king. Created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck for Fawcett Comics, Shazam outsold Superman with a reported circulation of 1.3 million copies per issue. He was the first to hit the big screen, with the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel.
Comic book and pop culture historians point to the simplicity of Shazam/Captain Marvel as the key to its success. Unlike Batman and Green Lantern, the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a kid getting to play with superpowers was infectious to the medium’s young readership.
“The central concept was one that every kid could get into,” wrote comic book historian Scott Tipton in 2003. “Hey, all that took was shouting a magic word, and instantly you’re a grown-up … super-strong, super-smart, super-brave and you could fly.” It was, to Tipton, a “sweet deal.”
While Shazam is nearly eight decades old, Sandberg says he relied on the story’s inherit youthfulness to make it thoroughly modern. He let his ensemble cast of kids be kids, and relied on them to guide him through Generation Z. All the while, Sandberg mined his own childhood, made up of movies like The Goonies and Gremlins, to craft a superhero film evocative of Steven Spielberg in the eighties.
“This was a chance for me to tap into those movies I grew up with and made me fall in love with movies,” Sandberg says. “They have a lot of heart to them. They’re fun, they have drama and even a bit of horror. It felt like my chance to make something like that.”
While it may feel nostalgic for the ‘80s, Shazam! is through and through a 21st century movie.
“What’s so fun is that you see what kids would do with superpowers,” he says. “Of course they’d put it on YouTube.”
On directing kids, Sandberg relied on them to show him what’s hip in their world to inform the world of Shazam!. “It’s letting them be,” he says. “The kids would tell me what they like.”
For example: Ian Chen, a 12-year-old actor who stars in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and plays one of Billy’s five foster siblings Eugene, coached Sandberg through today’s video gaming slang.
“I don’t keep up with the latest games,” says the director. “I’d ask him, how do you say this? What does this mean?”
He also had no idea what “The Floss” was when he caught his star, Zachary Levi, doing on camera. “I just thought that was Zack being Zack. When it was in the trailer people were like, ‘He’s flossing!’ I was like, what the hell is that?”
It was also fortuitous that the most modern comic book of Shazam — penned by DC scribe Geoff Johns and published in 2012, and a major inspiration for the film — also happened to be a Christmas story, a hallmark of many ‘80s films. Sandberg is already prepared for the inevitable “Is Shazam! a Christmas movie?” debate online. (His answer: “Sure.”)
“At the core, it’s a holiday about family,” he says. “It’s when families come together. I felt it was so appropriate for this story. It’s the whole reason Billy is finding his family and what that family is coming together. I’m happy we got to do things like show foster parenting from the perspective of a very loving, functional home.”
Loving homes, Fortnite references, and Christmas? Shazam! doesn’t sound like any other DC movie, with dark, gritty aesthetics and convoluted set-ups to sequels. Not having to care about sequels was a relief to Sandberg.
“I was very happy we only needed to focus on Shazam!,” he says. “Make the right movie for the right character, and not force things together or set things up for the future. Seems like a good idea to me.”
Of course there are still some spoiler-y elements in Shazam! that suggests a sequel is already in the works. (Warner Bros. has not yet confirmed if a sequel is in development.)
“There’s things in this movie that I felt people online were speculating, ‘Oh they can’t do that in the movie, that’s for the sequel.’ We didn’t have to hold off until the sequel,” Sandberg says. “We just put whatever we wanted to put in this movie.”
Shazam! hits theaters on April 5.