How do you make a cinematic superhero universe fun again?
Darkness has frequently been the main ingredient for DC Comics’ live-action movies, from Tim Burton’s gothic Batman vision of the late ’80s and early ’90s, to Christopher Nolan’s gritty and realistic “Dark Knight” trilogy.
DC’s most recent solo superhero efforts have been inching toward the light. “Wonder Woman” was bold and epic. “Aquaman” was swashbuckling. Who could be a little bit of both and look like they were having a really good time?
The magical and Greek god-powered “big red cheese” — known for years as Captain Marvel until Marvel Comics got a legal grip on that name — was the one superhero in DC’s vault of icons that could save the day without a grimace. The key lies in the hero’s secret identity: When he says “Shazam,” lightning strikes, and his true identity is revealed: a teenage orphan named Billy Batson.
“ ‘Shazam!’ is about a 14-year-old in a superhero’s body,” said Zachary Levi, who stars as Batson’s adult superpowered half. “You can’t tell that story without having a ton of heart and a ton of humor.”
In theaters Friday and directed by David Sandberg, “Shazam!” is Warner Bros. and DC’s answer to the question: “Why so serious?”
Key casting decisions helped Sandberg make the magic feel real. Disney Channel teen star Asher Angel plays Batson, and when the smoke clears from the lightning strike, Angel’s Batson gives way to Levi, who emerges in the super-suit and cape. Mark Strong is the fear-inducing villain, who balances out the playful vibes of a kid on the path to discovering how to be a superhero.
Angel was thrilled to have the chance to play a superhero protagonist, even if the dynamics of the kid-to-adult transformation of “Shazam!” meant he wouldn’t get to put on a superhero suit. But questions arose about his filming schedule on the Disney Channel show “Andi Mack,” as the time he was set to wrap up the season would be when filming for “Shazam!” was taking place — if he got the role.
“When [the “Shazam!”] audition came in I thought, even if I get to the test, [Disney] won’t even let me go through [with it],” Angel says. “Everyone was going crazy at Warner Bros., and everyone was going crazy at Disney. I have an amazing team [of agents]. I’m so thankful for them. All of this wouldn’t have been worked out without them.”
With Angel on board, the bonding with Levi began. Levi says the two worked on “getting a vibe for each other,” since they were portraying different versions of the same person, and that they trusted Sandberg to patch their performances together to make the transformations seamless. As for the constant excitement on Levi’s face? It was genuine, he says, and not an effort to appear youthful on the inside.
“Honestly, [there was an] exuberance that I felt being cast as a superhero. It was a double dream come true for me,” Levi says. “For the little kid in me, and for the actor me, and I didn’t have to rein any of that in. I just got to take that and use it. So, when you see the exuberance of me as Billy as Shazam, that’s a lot of Sha-Zach just being stoked that he’s Shazam.”
Levi doesn’t think DC’s darker and moodier past on film is all bad, but admits that “Shazam!” is a step away from the previous tone — and that comes from staying true to the comic source material.
“By no real effort of our own, other than just telling the right story, we were able to create a very different type of DC film,” Levi says.
With “Shazam!” receiving largely positive reviews, Levi’s superhero performance represents a mild winning streak for DC after “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” stopped the waves of bad press and lack of praise during the “Justice League” era. It perhaps also has convinced Warner Bros. and DC to take a singular approach to their heroes instead of rushing to a hyped all-star team-up.
Levi is aware that he’s now the only live-action cinematic DC superhero with a cape, with no Superman movies in production and Matt Reeve’s “The Batman” not arriving until 2021.
“[Shazam is] kind of carrying that mantle, if you will, while we’re waiting for Supes and Batman to be rebooted. I’m honored to carry that torch and keep this DC mojo going as well as with Gal [Gadot] and Jason [Momoa],” Levi says. “There’s a lot of good that’s swirling around, and it’s a really cool time to be a part of DC.”
Strong, meanwhile, saw the role of “Shazam!” antagonist Dr. Thaddeus Sivana as a chance to get back to his DC villain roots. His portrayal of Sinestro is considered to be the lone bright spot in the otherwise universally panned “Green Lantern,” a movie even star Ryan Reynolds makes fun of whenever given the chance.
But “Green Lantern” featured Sinestro as heroic, only hinting at the villain his comic-book destiny dictated he’d become. So Strong saw “Shazam!’ s” Sivana as an extension of what could have been.
“It was like passing the baton on from Sinestro to Sivana. I always felt that little Easter egg sequence at the end of ‘Green Lantern,’ when he puts the yellow ring on and transforms … it always felt a little bit interrupted. [With Sivana], I’m able to go and explore the [darkness],” Strong says. “Sinestro was about to become evil, but I never got the chance to take the next step. I feel like I had the opportunity to do that with [Sivana].”
Strong says there was no love lost for the comic company’s movie brand despite the stumbles. He was eager to return to this universe and knew working with a director known for dabbling in fear and horror would help produce a strong villainous performance.
“You don’t really feel that our heroes are in danger unless you are truly terrified by the bad guy,” Strong says. “Knowing that [Sandberg] comes from a horror background as a director … I [knew] he would give Sivana the weight and the power necessary to make it properly scary.”
And should “Shazam!” merit a sequel, it has a Hollywood heavyweight waiting in the wings: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been attached to the role of Shazam’s most popular nemesis, Black Adam, for years. While Johnson’s star is so bright he could get his own Black Adam movie before appearing in a potential “Shazam!” sequel, the possibilities for a super showdown are not lost on the cast.
“I think the battle every Shazam fan wants to see definitely is Black Adam and Shazam. It’s iconic,” Levi says. “All I’m trying to do is make sure this [movie] works so that we can eventually get to that one.”
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