Finding the Right Tone for Shazam!

Shazam! is a perfect blend of superheroics and comedy, and a lot of that came from the freedom the actors had on set.

Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman and Zachary Levi as Shazam

Sometimes, it’s ok for a superhero movie to just be a superhero movie. And in the case of Shazam!, the latest DCEU entry from Warner Bros., that’s about the only thing it could ever be. There’s simply no other way to describe the story of a kid who says a magic word, gets struck by lightning, and transforms into an adult imbued with the power of six mythological figures, especially not when there’s a red, gold, and white costume in the mix.

And yet it has become fashionable for studios and producers to try and package their superhero movies as something else. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy is more space opera than superhero opus, but is Captain America: The Winter Soldier really the “political thriller” Marvel Studios tried to convince people it was? For that matter, was DCEU ground zero Man of Steel really more of an alien invasion story than a Superman one? But Shazam! is nothing less than pure superheroics, and that was by design.

Shazam! director David F. Sandberg, whose previous work (Annabelle: Creation, Lights Out) doesn’t really earmark him as someone who would make something so unabashedly joyful as this movie, knew exactly the kind of tone he wanted to aim for. Sandberg describes Shazam! as “the most wish-fulfillment movie you could make,” and leaned into that by embracing the character’s comic book look and seeking out iconic sounds.

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“I wanted him to look and feel a little bit like a golden age superhero,” Sandberg says, “and wanted the score by Benjamin Wallfisch to feel very much like … a more John Williams type score.”

“It was like ‘what did we love from our youth? Let’s bring it to play in this film,’” producer Peter Safran says. “I applaud New Line and DC and Warner Brothers for really giving us the freedom to do something that might be unfashionable or they might look at and go, ‘Boy, the eye of the needle’s too small on that. You can’t get that tone. It’s too hard to get.’ They really let us play, and David found it.”

They found a unique tone in other ways, as well. While Marvel Studios is known for its quippy, breezy approach to superheroics (something they tapped into effortlessly in Spider-Man: Homecoming, among others), and Deadpool delivered not one, but two foul-mouthed, hard-R yukfests, the DCEU notably (and, for some, controversially) took a different approach early on. And while the films have started to shed some of the lingering stigma from the grim approach of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, they’ve certainly never gone as blatantly for the laughs as they do in Shazam!.

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Henry Gayden’s breezy, funny screenplay does a lot of work, giving its primarily young cast plenty of endearing characteristics, while balancing just the right amount of superheroic action and magical menace. Shazam! is the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who says a magic word and transforms into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). The problem is, Billy has no idea what being a superhero is all about, so it’s up to his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) to help show him the ropes. This means that there’s plenty of clowning around between an “adult” Billy and the teenage Freddy Freeman, with plenty of sight gags and sharp dialogue. The cast’s enthusiasm for these scenes is infectious, and some of it comes from the freedom they were given on set, which allowed for plenty of opportunities for improvisation between Levi and Grazer.

“David was really lenient when it came to that,” Grazer says. “He had a lot of flexibility, and he wanted to give us the opportunity to find our characters without having the construct or conservatism of pages, script and all that. So he sometimes told us ‘Just forget the page, forget the script. I want you to just bring what you have to say. Respond to Billy how you would as Freddy. I want you to really find this within yourself.’ We had a lot of fun.”

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“David gave us a lot of leeway to inhabit these characters [and] bring them to life,” Levi says. “You couldn’t just pretend you’re a Sasquatch, you couldn’t just go completely off the rails, although that would have been interesting, Sasquatch Billy,” Levi says. “The amount of improv that … Well, hopefully you don’t know how much of it is in the movie. And also, Henry [Gayden] wrote a ton of great dialogue, so it’s a marriage of all of it.”

Sandberg, who has primarily been known for his work in horror movies up until this point, admits that working like this was “a first” compared to his earlier films.

“It just goes so well together, and they’re great little improvisors,” says. “And no two takes were ever the same, so I would just do a bunch of takes just to see what they would bring to it. Sometimes I wouldn’t even yell ‘cut’ because I would just see what they would do when they didn’t have any more material, and they would just start riffing on things. Of course, a lot of that wasn’t usable for the film, but it was fun for me to just be there behind the monitor and giggle.”

You can try and spot what’s scripted and what’s improvised when Shazam! opens on April 4. Read our spoiler-free review here.