If you want to know how Shazam is going to be different from the DC Entertainment films that preceded it, you need only reference two scenes: One in which the hero fights the bad guy in a toy store filled with DC superhero merch, and another where a big fight takes place at a festive winter carnival, complete with a giant Ferris wheel and dozens of games.
Not your typical DC movie. Not your typical superhero movie period. But that’s Shazam.
“I like to compare it to ‘80s movies, like Goonies, Ghostbusters, and Back to the Future,” said director David F. Sandberg on the film’s Toronto set. “That sort of like, ‘Oh, it’s a family [film]...kind of.’” Basically, it’s trying to be something you wouldn’t expect.
Like Justice League, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad, Shazam is 100 per cent set in the DC movie universe. However, hewing closer to Wonder Woman or Aquaman, it’s going to feel like a standalone movie with its own mythology and tone.
But even compared to the bright, hopefulness of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, Shazam feels like it could be another level. Similar to the DC Comics story, the hero in the film is 14-year-old Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel), chosen by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be his champion and possess all the power of Shazam (the beings Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury).
Just by saying “Shazam”, the boy becomes a full-grown adult, played by Zachary Levi.
The movie has a young cast, is filled with humour, and really, only has one darkly lit set (the crucial Rock of Eternity where Billy meets the Wizard). Even Shazam’s costume isn’t the typical dark blue, black, or green. It’s bright red with a gold belt, boots, and gauntlets, complete with a short white cape and a blinding yellow lightning bolt that lights up practically on set (it goes from dim to blindingly bright with the touch of a button). The idea is, he’s what a 14-year-old who lives in a world where Superman and Wonder Woman exists might draw if he imagined a superhero.
“There are two characters that I can think of in all of comic-dom [that actually want to be a superhero]” said Levi. “And it’s Billy Batson and Peter Parker.” Because Billy enjoys being a hero, Levi loved that he could really amp up the enthusiasm. “That I don’t have to restrain myself with the fucking coolness factor is so great,” he said. “I have to act so little. I just get to be me on so many levels.”
That’s why Sandberg, best known for horror films like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, cast Levi in the role: He’s not your typical superhero. Even just chatting between takes, he has this unique, palpable, youthful excitement. And yet, when Levi first heard a Shazam movie was coming and Warner Bros. might be interested in him, he told his agents not to even pursue it.
“I knew that the Rock had been cast as Black Adam, so my first reaction is, ‘Why the hell are they sending me this right now?’” he said. “So, I said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to pass because I think that might be a waste of time. This doesn’t seem like I’ve got a shot at getting this job, to be perfectly honest.’”
But he did have a shot, mainly because he has the enthusiasm and childlike exuberance needed for the main character. Plus, the film was structured as a standalone origin story with a much more personal touch, hence the big battles in the toy store and carnival. It lent itself to someone new and different. “It’s a very sort of personal story which I like,” Sandberg said. “I find it more engaging when it’s not an entire world [at stake] and it’s [a] blue beam in the sky”
On April 18, 2018, in Toronto, Canada, the crew of Shazam was on day 51 of their shoot. The cold of Toronto was doubling for Christmas time in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is when a young Billy is placed in a foster home filled with kids from varying backgrounds. Sandberg shot the scene where Billy enters the house as a three-plus minute Steadicam shot as actors go in and out of various rooms, creating a very dynamic, overwhelming environment. Billy can barely keep his head from spinning, there’s so much going on so fast. And though the family is large, Billy gravitates to Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a massive fan of superheroes, going so far as wearing an Aquaman t-shirt during this scene. (So, yes, it’s canon that you can buy DC merch in the DC universe...I wonder who gets the royalties?) And though later in the day Sandberg filmed a scene of Billy trying to escape, this idea of a big, warm, family is at the heart of Shazam.
“He’s had a hard life,” Angel said. “He lost his mum when he was really, really young and he’s basically just been searching for her his entire life. He does not want to be with these people, he does not want to be here. He just wants his mum, that’s it. Just wants his mum.”
Along with the story of Billy getting the powers of Shazam, the film will simultaneously follow Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, whom the audience will meet as a young child in the film’s opening. Long before Billy was granted his powers, Sivana was given the same opportunity but was seduced by a more evil power, the Eye of Sin. He spends the rest of his life trying to change that and, eventually, finds himself with the ability to control the seven deadly sins, which will physically appear in the film.
“He is a proper super villain,” said Mark Strong, who plays the character. “He gets to fly, he can create electric fields in his hands and fire electricity. I love the whole notion that in his eye he has seven sins that manifest themselves at various points whenever they or he wants them to. So, it’s a good, proper supervillain.”
Eventually, after Billy is given the powers of Shazam and goes a little too wild (he and Freddy test out the powers and put it on YouTube, which you see in the first trailer), Sivana finds him and the two begin to battle.
“He can’t understand that the Wizard has chosen this boy as his champion,” Strong said. “But, it just justifies him in his quest to unify the good force and the evil force and be in control of all of it.”
And Strong—who has played in the comic book sandbox before, taking on a the classic hero-turned-villain Sinestro in Warner’s 2011 Green Lantern film—loves tackling a character with that kind of evil power.
“Sivana should be like, heat-seeking ballistic evil,” he said. “The more frightening you make him, the more you feel that the kids are in jeopardy, and therefore the more that morality term of the balance of good and evil plays out satisfactory. I think if he ever steps back and takes his foot off the gas of being dark, it doesn’t serve the purpose of the story, which is he needs to be a terrifying nemesis.”
Sivana is the one character in the film who looks most unlike the more traditional versions of their comic book counterparts. Instead of the classic, white-lab-coat-doctor depiction, this Sivana is rocking a purple velvet vest and long black leather coat. Otherwise, though, this is a movie largely inspired by DC’s “New 52” line through and through. Everyone on set, from the actors and director, down to the costume designer and props master, cited the Gary Frank/Geoff Johns New 52 run of Shazam as the primary influence on the film. (There’s even a scene of Freddy and Shazam using the new body to try and buy beer, like in Justice League Volume 2 #15). Beyond that, there will, of course, be plenty of nods to Shazam’s history, some of which are so spoilery, we were asked not to mention them.
Those comic details extend to all parts of the production. The buttons linking Shazam’s cape to his costume have images of Tawky Tawny on them, a nod to the anthropomorphic tiger who is a frequent ally of Shazam. There are also tigers all over the elaborate “Chilladelphia Winter Carnival” set, which we were told was a very purposeful touch. The set was completely built and recreated in 360 degrees with working rides, games and more. For all intents and purposes, it’s a real carnival...which will get destroyed in the movie. Freddy’s room is also filled with winks and nods to recent DC films.
And yes, in response to all the internet hubbub, there is padding in the Shazam suit. “The only all-natural person ever in history was Christopher Reeve, so there’s your answer, ok?” said costume designer Leah Butler. “But Zach got in incredible shape. So we were very thankful that he was able to do that and his form has really helped so much and really showing our Shazam the way he should be.”
But will the movie as a whole turn out the way we hope?
Like most times you visit a set, everyone was saying the right things and the story on a macro level seems to work very well. All the pieces were there to make a DC movie that has a whole new tone and accessibility.
“I think everything is informing everything else,” Strong said. “Guardians of the Galaxy comes out that has a sense of humour. That now infuses Thor [Ragnarok] which gives that a big sense of humour. Now we’ve moved into the world of Black Panther and now we’ve got a female superhero in Wonder Woman. It’s as if everything is pushing the genre onwards and that, I think, can only be a good thing.”