SPOILER ALERT: This article contains story details about Shazam!
It wasn’t that much of a surprise to pick David F. Sandberg as the director of the Warner Bros. adaptation of Shazam! The director is known mostly for his horror fare like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation but his credits also include short comedy films. His experience in the two genres make for a cross-section of filmmaking sensibilities that match the style and tone of the DC Comics superhero movie that is not only fun like an action-packed amusement park attraction, but also heartfelt and inclusive.
“I’ve always liked all kinds of movies, so many different genres,” Sandberg tells Deadline. “To me, this was a love letter to movies I grew up with and loved that made me fall in love with film.”
Before he was scaring us with demonic dolls and things that go bump in the dark, the Sweden native had viral success with an animated web series. When he came stateside he got into the horror — but he’s always had a fun side. Sandberg cites movies like The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gremlins; all of which are filled with adventure, comedy, horror and the child-like that makes you beam with frightened wonder. “I think you need the sense of real threats, so it’s not all just fun and games,” he said. “I think that is what I was able to bring to Shazam! — the sense of real jeopardy. When one of the kids get threatened, you believe ‘Oh shit, things can go really bad for them.'”
With a script by Henry Gayden, Sandberg managed to bring a very fresh and unique point of view to Shazam! More than that, he injected a heartwarming element of an inclusive family that grounds a fantastical story. The film tells the story of Billy Baston (Asher Angel), a rebel teen who reluctantly becomes part of a very welcoming and multicultural foster family headed by matriarch Rosa (Marta Milans) and patriarch Victor (Cooper Andrews). His new foster siblings Darla (Faithe Herman), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Mary (Grace Fulton), and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) attempt to bond with him but he refuses. Sandberg makes the story inclusive and the need to belong to a family rings loud — if not louder — than the actual superhero narrative itself. One day Billy meets a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) that grants him the power of becoming the superhero Shazam (who is also known as Captain Marvel — not to be confused with Marvel’s Captain Marvel).
Sandberg talked about his approach to Shazam!, how the theme of family played into the origin story and he revealed some details about the two post-credit scenes and the future of the adolescent superhero in the DC Universe.
DEADLINE: How familiar were you with the Shazam! character in the comics?
DAVID F. SANDBERG: I wasn’t very familiar actually. I heard the name and I’d see pictures of him, but I wasn’t that familiar. I grew up with Superman and Batman, Spider-Man — things like that. So, I’d never heard of him when I was a kid, back home in Sweden. The studio was basically pitching me because they called me up and asked if I’d be interested. They were pitching it to me as Big but with superpowers, which sounded amazing. I was like, “Sign me up!” I did my homework and read a ton of comics because there’s so much. I mean, he’s been around since 1940, so there’s such a wealth of comics to catch up on.
DEADLINE: When you were reading the comics and doing this in-depth research on the Shazam! world, what was it that stood out to you about Bill Batson’s story?
SANDBERG: Well, he is a very fun character and there’s a light-hearted tone throughout, but I think what sets Geoff John’s version of Shazam! in particular, is the Big aspect. Billy becomes an adult superhero and that to me, it just has so much potential — that is the ultimate wish fulfillment. Every kid dreams about becoming a superhero and he actually gets to become that. I keep saying that most superheroes get their superpowers when their adults and when they are in a place where they have these responsibilities and they are sort of weighted down by that. But, with a kid, you get that joy of “Oh shit! I’m a superhero, I can do all these things!”
DEADLINE: Comic book fans are loyal and rabid and this a DC property with a huge following that is ready to pick apart any and all adaptations. Were you apprehensive about accepting the project and what kind of pressures did you feel?
SANDBERG: Shazam! has certain has loyal fans that have been around for a long time, but most people aren’t that familiar with him and since he hasn’t had a movie before on the big screen except for some serials back in the ’40s. There wasn’t that much to compare to so we felt like we can do our own thing — we can bring our version of Shazam! out there to introduce to people. I think It would have been a lot more pressure if it had been Superman, for example. There’s a lot to live up to there and a lot to compare to. With Shazam! it felt fresher.
But we did get a lot of emails from super hardcore fans that were like “This is what the movie has to be” — but new fans and old fans seem to like it a lot which is a big relief because I was like, “We are probably going to lose one fraction of fans” but, so far, so good.
DEADLINE: The movie is a superhero origin story, but the more I watched it, the more I thought it was a family film first and then comic book movie.
SANDBERG: Yeah, the family is at the heart of it — that’s what it’s all about. Finding your family and the big reveal at the end. That’s the important thing to have — it’s not just explosions and fights. You really have to have that family story. I think that’s why the horror movies I made worked as well because they have had very much of the family aspect as well. I was so happy that we were able so show, in this movie, a happy foster home. In so many movies you have an evil foster parent or bad foster home, but we got to show a loving, functioning, happy foster family.
DEADLINE: Did it take a while for the actors to vibe as a family?
SANDBERG: They just clicked right away. I’d be working late on the set and I’d see on Instagram all the stuff they go out and do together. I am working and I’d get jealous seeing all the fun things they were doing together (laughs).
DEADLINE: What was also interesting is how inclusive the foster family was. You have a Latinx mom and kids who were Asian, black, white, disabled — it was very diverse. How do you think that plays into this narrative without being tokenism?
SANDBERG: That’s one thing I loved about Johnson’s version — you see them it feels like a complete family. It gives a feeling that a family can come from anywhere and it doesn’t matter who you are. It also shows that anyone can be a hero, no matter the background or who you are. I was really happy that the story allows for that inclusion.
DEADLINE: So let’s talk about one of the post-credit scenes. Who is that worm and what does he mean for the future of Shazam?
SANDBERG: Mister Mind — he’s an old school Captain Marvel villain. Mister Mind is this alien worm with mind control power and he’s quite dangerous. He’s just a fun character and you have to have mid-credit scene these days. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the plan for what’s in Shazam! part 2, 3 or something like that. It was just like, “Let’s open the door for something else and let’s use Mister Mind!” It’s just a really fun build up. It’s kinda funny how a lot of people have seen the movie and there are discussions online saying “What the hell was that?” Then you have the fans who are like “Oh shit, Mister Mind!”
DEADLINE: What about the second post-credit scene which includes a kind-of cameo from Superman. Was that really Henry Cavill?
SANDBERG: So that was Ryan [Hadley], who was the stunt double for Shazam. In the script, he actually sat down and they had a little conversation. We couldn’t do that, so we were like “What do we do now?” So we did this and I was like “Is this going to work or is it going to feel cheap?” but then when you just cut from their reactions to the credits, we just found it hilarious. It turned out better than what was in the script.
DEADLINE: With Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Superman, the Flash, and Batman, how does Shazam play into this expanded DC universe?
SANDBERG: I don’t know, really. That’s what was so liberating with making this movie. It was that we only have to do the best Shazam! movie we can do. We didn’t have to set up this movie in the future or include references to this or that. I’m not really sure what’s gonna happen with it and that’s what I love about it. It felt like we were making our own movie — it just takes place in the DC universe.
DEADLINE: What do you think makes Shazam kinda stand out from other superheroes?
SANDBERG: I think it’s the best perspective that we haven’t seen. The little kid who becomes the adult superhero — it’s a unique concept. It’s a fresh perspective because you get to see how a kid would actually react to that. I think that’s the great thing about a superhero genre because it has many genres within it. Like you can do a fun adventure like this or do something darker like Joker. There are s so many different stories to tell and so many different characters and you can always find new unique way of telling those stories.