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The three keys to Shazam!’s box-office success are a testament to zigging when everyone else zags

Shazam!’s counterintuitive path to popularity is an object lesson in pursuing originality in a universe dominated with world-building

The three keys to Shazam!’s box-office success are a testament to zigging when everyone else zags
Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman and Zachary Levi as Shazam in Shazam! [Photo: Steve Wilkie/DC Comics]

The success of Warner Bros.’ latest superhero movie Shazam!, which took the No. 1 spot at the box office last weekend and has had critics swooning–it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 91%–makes it hard not to wonder whether the film marks a new direction for DC Films. Under the aegis of Warner Bros., the movie arm of the vaunted comic book company has been struggling for years to capture audiences with the unrelenting velocity of rival Marvel Entertainment, after a long series of dark, brooding caped crusaders (Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League) that lacked the artistry of the Dark Knight trilogy by director Christopher Nolan. 

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The tide started to turn with 2017’s Wonder Woman, followed by last Christmas’s Aquaman and now Shazam!, none of which bear the weighty, ponderous tone of their recent predecessors. Shazam!, in particular, so gleefully revels in its gee-whiz story–a 15-year-old boy discovers he can transform himself into a muscled crusader simply by saying the word “shazam!”–that it feels more like an ’80s feel-good kids’ film like The Goonies than something out of the superhero canon.

So to answer the original question of this piece: Don’t think too hard about whether Shazam! signals a new direction for DC Films. Consider it a unique experiment that benefited from a very un-strategic strategy that boiled down to making a funny, family movie that isn’t trying too hard to do anything other than delight audiences. 

“Every movie will be true to the character,” says DC Films president Walter Hamada. “So the Joker movie will have a very different tone than a Shazam movie, which has a different tone than a Suicide Squad would. The characters and the story will determine the tone. We’re not focussed on trying to create one, unifying tone. We’re looking for diversity of tones and really a diversity of storytelling.”

A few days after Shazam‘s release, Fast Company spoke with Hamada; New Line Cinema’s president and chief creative officer Richard Brener; and executive vice president of production at New Line, Dave Neustadter, about the film’s unlikely road to big-screen success. 

Zachary Levi as Shazam and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman in Shazam! [Photo: Steve Wilkie/DC Comics]

1. The freedom of being a standalone superhero movie

Unlike DC films with names like Superman and Batman in them, Shazam! was never seen as a piece of the DC Cinematic Universe, which launched with Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Cinematic “universes”–the term for the interlocking slate of films in which characters routinely overlap–have been all the rage in Hollywood ever since Marvel paved the way with its series of successful, interrelated films.    

“Shazam was the one character that (DC Films) wasn’t interested in as they were planning the bigger, Justice League build-out,” says Hamada, who was at New Line for most of Shazam’s development and production. He moved over to DC Films last January. This revelation came six years ago, when Hamada and Neustadter approached DC Films to say, “Hey, what other DC characters can we play with?'” Hamada says. 

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The answer was Shazam, which had been in development since the early 2000s, when a series of writers, including legendary scribe William Goldman (The Princess Bride), took a crack at a script. But no one unlocked it, and the project lagged for years. Once the film was resuscitated in 2017,  there was no pressure to tie it into the bigger DC cinematic entity, allowing the filmmakers to be as playful and freewheeling as they wanted to be with the plot. 

“Truthfully, it wasn’t an option,” Hamada says. “In the comics, Shazam fits into that universe, but at the time (that New Line was discussing Shazam with DC), that was still the whole build-out of Zack’s BvS, Justice League universe. In that world, they weren’t using Shazam, so it would have been weird for us to really lean into that. 

“And we’re two separate entities,” he says, meaning New Line and DC Films. “So Shazam was just sort of developed as its own movie. We weren’t focused on how it could tie into Batman or Superman, or any of those characters. Which actually frees things up. You’re not worried about, The end of this movie has to tie into the beginning of some other movie.”

“It’s not about saving the world,” Hamada says. “It’s not about changing the world. I think that does give us a little more freedom, you know, to have some fun with these characters.”

2. Forget about release dates

Trying to track the ups and downs of Shazam‘s decades-long development at New Line is an exercise in confusion. Suffice it to say that at one point the film went completely dormant. At another, Dwayne Johnson was cast as the villain Black Adam. That idea was scrapped. It wasn’t until Henry Gayden came on board as a writer in 2017 that the film finally gained its footing. Soon after, director David F. Sandberg was hired and . . . shazam!   

Executives say Shazam!‘s stop-and-go trajectory is partly why the film has proven to be such a runaway success. “We didn’t plan a release date and then start a script and try to jam it in,” says Hamada. “We took the time so that when the script was ready, and when we found the right filmmaker, and we found the right cast, we went and made the movie.”

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This even extended to casting. Zachary Levi, who plays the title role, and initially passed on the part, never believing he’d actually be cast as a lead superhero. “He’d had a couple times where he sort of felt like he was going to get a job and then someone else came along and got it,” Hamada says. “In his mind, the studios were never going to cast him as a lead in a superhero movie, so why put yourself up for it? So he read, actually, for the Freddy (Freeman) role. It was that audition that we looked at and said, ‘He should be Shazam!’ So we reached out to him and said, ‘Would you ever consider coming in and reading for Shazam? He kind of reluctantly said, ‘I guess.'” 

This meandering, almost accidental evolution allowed the film to come together organically and at its own pace. “Make things when they’re ready to go,” Neustadter says, “and hire the right people, and tell the right story, and you’ll find the audience.” 

Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana and Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman in Shazam! [Photo: Steve Wilkie/DC Comics]

3. The New Line factor

Executives are reluctant to say that Shazam! benefited from being a New Line film, but it’s hard not to notice that many of its attributes–its edgy comedy and off-the-cuff feel–are what have defined the label for decades. 

“I think the comic itself lends itself to a certain amount of comedy,” Brener allows. “Geoff Johns had reintroduce the comic, and he brought to it a little more modern sensibility that is also reflected in the movie. I would say the budget is a little bit influenced by New Line. We tend to be pretty budget-conscious, and it allows us to maybe take a little more risk on the creative side. 

“Obviously, we’ve had some success in comedy, but it was just as much about the subject matter, the basic DNA of the comic that lends itself to be more fun and family-friendly.”   

Brener also points out that Hamada’s segue from New Line to DC has made it hard to “see a differentiation” between the two entities. 

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“I can’t speak to Warner Bros. and how they do it. I’ve only been here. I think we just developed what we thought was the best story while being respectful to the canon and what Geoff Johns had created. There was a little less strategy involved and just making sure that you’re doing the story justice. Hopefully, that’ll find an audience.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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