Big meets Superman? Why Shazam! could be the best DCEU movie since Wonder Woman

Our sister publication Total Film magazine is wrapped up warm in Pinewood Studios, Toronto, in April 2018, and examining Shazam’s codpiece...

“The exterior suit is a spandex suit that goes over the top of a musculature suit, and each muscle has been sculpted on the body form of Zach [Levi, playing the titular superhero] so it accents and highlights his shape and size,” explains costume designer Leah Butler with a nervous laugh. “The codpiece and pecs also need to be in line with the size and shape of the rest of the body. If we didn’t pad everything out it would look off in certain areas because of the bigger proportion in the shoulders or the pecs or thighs. To have a smaller codpiece would look...” She trails off. “We have to pad it out to be balanced.” 

Shazam’s bulge is now a member of an exclusive club, for Pinewood, Toronto, has housed such iconic movies as Cleopatra, Goldfinger, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Superman 2. This last has a pleasing symmetry, for Shazam! is the new kid on the DCEU block, and is best described as Superman-meets-Big given that 14-year-old foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is granted the powers to turn into an adult superhero whenever he hollers the titular word.

How Billy comes by such powers is presented, in brief, in the peppy trailer, with his train ride home taking him not to 30th Street as he anticipated, but to the Rock of Eternity, a cavernous lair. It looks subterranean but actually stands outside of time and space, and is presided over by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who acts as prison warden to the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins. Should they escape into our - or, indeed, any other realm - than chaos and carnage will reign supreme. 

Trouble is, that just might happen, as the wizard is the last of his kind and is himself feeling a little peaky, meaning it’s essential that he bestow the gift of the power of Shazam! upon a new champion. Enter Billy. 

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And enter Total Film, staring up at 15ft rock walls and stone pillars etched with hieroglyphics. These are the foundations of a huge, minutely detailed set that is about to be packed up and sent to Burbank, California, where Warner Bros will likely put it on display until it is needed for the inevitable sequel Shazam! – or perhaps a future Justice League movie (more on that later). Right now, though, which is day 58 of the 69-day shoot, all filming of the Rock of Eternity is in the can and the set is plunged into darkness… which just makes it all the more creepy to explore.

Creepiest of all are the bulky statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, the stone prisons that, in the movie, entrap the actual monsters. Gluttony has a huge gob with ribs for teeth; Envy boasts green eyes located, tellingly, on the sides of its head; Lust possesses an unfeasibly lengthy tongue. All are different but share one thing in common: they are genuinely nightmarish. 

“They will be flying around and fighting,” says production designer Jennifer Spence, materialising from out of the blackness to make Total Film jump. She is proud of the Rock of Eternity set, and rightly so, explaining it took hundreds of people – carpenters, mouldmakers, scenic artists, painters – seven weeks to construct. The statues of the Sins, meanwhile, were designed by Neville Page. It’s not until you tentatively stretch out a hand to touch one of them that you realise they are sculpted not from stone but Styrofoam. Each has a different texture inspired by the natural world – Lust is reptilian, Sloth looks like tree bark, Gluttony resembles an elephant’s skin. 

“The only time you’ll see CG is if you look up,” says Spence, pointing at the gigantic bluescreen that tops the set before producing concept art to reveal the criss-crossing staircases that will soar high above. “I wanted it to look like it’s hidden somewhere on Earth.”

David and Goliath

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

“I’m not sure why they asked me, but I was happy to take on the challenge,” shrugs director David Sandberg, entering a conference room and chomping on a cream cheese bagel. His short hair is silver, his bushy beard brown, and beneath his grey overcoat grins a skull on a black t-shirt – a reminder, should we need it, that Sandberg directed two corking horror movies in Annabelle: Creation and Lights Out. Which perhaps makes him an odd choice. OK, so Shazam! is a monster movie, of sorts, given those Seven Deadly Sins naturally get out and about, but it is predominantly an ebullient family film that will see the gloomy DCEU dial the dimmer switch all the way up from dolour to colour after the flickers of fun provided by the characters of Wonder Woman, The Flash and Aquaman (to say nothing of that drum-playing octopus).

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“The shoot is as long as both of my previous movies combined, and you have so many more toys,” says Sandberg. “The goal is to make Shazam! feel like, in some ways, that fun ’80s movie, like John Hughes or Back to the Future. It’s just one of those movies that hopefully you’ll want to see over and over again. And also, it takes place at Christmas. It’s one of those where you go, ‘Oh, let’s watch this every Christmas! Hopefully.’” 

Producer Peter Safran, who oversaw Annabelle: Creation and, indeed, all of the movies in the Conjuring Universe, has no doubts that Sandberg is the right man for the job. And not just because the director is, like Shazam, a big kid at heart, with his house full of horror-icon figurines – and superheroes, too.

“David doesn’t think in terms of budget, he thinks in terms of story, and he had a large story planned for Shazam!,” says Safran. “Making this movie with him is the same as making Annabelle: Creation – just absolute clarity of vision.” Oh, and let’s not forget that James Wan directed Saw, Dead Silence, the first two Conjuring movies and the first two Insidious movies before taking the supersized option with Fast and Furious 7 and Aquaman.

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

“David is the spiritual successor to James,” nods Safran. “They cut their teeth on horror movies but are total filmmakers. These are guys you can give a million bucks to and they’ll make a great movie, or you can give them 100 million and they’ll make a great movie. They understand every aspect. And they put story first.” 

Ah yes, story. There are certainly a lot to choose from, for Shazam, originally known as Captain Marvel, was created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker and made his debut in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics in 1939. From the off, he was the alter-ego of Billy Batson, who had only to utter “Shazam” (an acronym of six immortal elders: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) to fill out a pair of size 11 boots and be blessed with super strength, speed, flight and more. 

During the 1940s, the character was the first superhero to be adapted into a film serial (Adventures of Captain Marvel) and the comics outsold Superman, only for Fawcett to cease publishing in 1953 when DC Comics issued a copyright infringement suit, declaring Captain Marvel to be a Xerox of Superman. Nineteen years later, in 1972, DC acquired the rights to the character, by which time Marvel Comics had its own Captain Marvel (now in cinemas in the form of Brie Larson), thus necessitating the change of brand name to Shazam.

So, where to start with the film? Well, the movie has also been on a labyrinthine journey, beginning at New Line in the early noughties and going into pre-production in 2008, with Dwayne Johnson poised to star as Shazam’s nemesis Black Adam. It fell apart, only to be revived in 2014, with Johnson still attached – though now it was up in the air as to whether he’d play Black Adam or Shazam (there has to be a Rock of Eternity gag in there somewhere). He opted for the former, and a solo project was duly announced in 2017; Shazam, not yet cast, would get a separate movie and face off against an altogether different nemesis.

“Dwayne is an executive producer [on Shazam!] but will not be involved in this one as Black Adam,” says Safran. “I suspect that somewhere down the road, in future movies, Shazam and Black Adam will share the screen.” 

"I want to be a part of the Justice League so fucking bad!”

Zachary Levi

What we have here is Shazam rightly getting his own origin story. Based largely on Geoff Johns’ New 52 reboot, it sees bullied Billy dumped into his latest foster home in Philadelphia, only to take that fateful train journey to the Rock of Eternity and... “Holy shit, I can do all these things!” as Sandberg puts it with a gleeful grin. 

As the trailer again highlights, Billy and his new brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Eddie Kaspbrak in the It movie) tear about town to discover just what Shazam can and can’t do (“You have bullet immunity!”), having so much fun they make Peter Parker look positively sullen. But with great power blah blah blah, so suddenly Billy/Shazam finds himself facing a fearsome foe in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), meaning he has to quickly learn that there’s more to being a superhero than posting all of the cool shit you can do on social media.

Starring role

“I did my audition tape with my dad,” says the highly likeable, ridiculously confident Asher Angel on getting cast as Billy. An actor since the age of seven, he’s already a Disney Channel star with a huge following on his own social media accounts. “I was in Utah. I said, ‘Dad, I’m going for a DC movie. How cool would that be?’ My dad played the wizard; he did a voice and everything. Next thing I knew, I came into Los Angeles for a test with all the executives. A couple of hours later, I got a call at the airport. It was everyone from Warner Bros and they were like, ‘Asher, you got Shazam!’ I started jumping up and down. Everyone was looking at me in the airport. Oh man, my mind was just blown away. It wasn’t until I got to Toronto that I actually believed it. This is my first big movie.” 

A more remarkable story still is the casting of Zachary Levi as Shazam. Asked by his agent to audition for the role, he “politely passed”, saying, “Aren’t they looking for bigger names or at least bigger guys?” Months later, he sent in a tape for a smaller role, only to be immediately flown to LA and asked to audition for the title character. Fast-forward a week and he had the gig. 

It’s not hard to see why. Best known (in America at least) as Chuck Bartowski in the action-comedy TV series Chuck (2007-2012), but having also appeared in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (“A real feather in my cap, that one”), Tangled (as the voice of Flynn Rider) and Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok as Fandral, Levi often plays big-hearted characters. He is a physical match for Angel (“Their smiles are similar, their eyes are similar,” notes Sandberg). But, most of all, he’s a living, breathing, so-hyper-it-makes-your-teeth-hurt man-child. 

“I’ve always been about joy!” says Levi, yakking 19 to the dozen and flashing grins and twitching restlessly in his seat. “I throw dance parties, my house always has an open-door policy, I still play video games, I still read graphic novels, I love the movies, I play sports, I have a shit ton of energy. I have this Peter Pan-y thing!” OK, let’s test it: if you could say “Shazam!” right now and turn into anything you wanted, what would it be? “A big bowl of ice cream!” he shoots right back at the top of his lungs. “But then I’m eating myself, which would be weird. Anything?” A nanosecond’s pause. “Just the best me. That sounds cheesy but genuinely I think that’s what life’s about.” 

Yep, that’s a fit for a superhero who’s super-stoked to leap into action. “He’s not bummed out, going, ‘Darn it, I have to save the world... again.’ He’s going, ‘I GET TO SAVE THE WORLD AGAIN!’” yells Levi, grinning from ear to ear. 

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Strong, therefore, is the perfect counterbalance, in life as in the movie. Not that he’s a misery guts – a more perfect gentleman would be a stretch to find – but because he exudes gravitas wherever he goes. 

“I love playing villains, I think they’re great,” he says with a devilish smirk. “The superheroes don’t really work unless they’ve got a good arch-villain. Look at Lex Luthor, the Joker... You’ve got amazing actors playing those parts. It’s a very honourable rollcall of people who play the villain in these movies.” 

The kind of comics that Strong grew up reading were The Beano and Whizzer and Chips, he laughs. But he dived deep into Shazam’s world upon being offered the part of Sivana, who is, after all, Shazam’s biggest foe in the comics, after Black Adam. And he liked what he saw. “Often, with supervillains, they are just designed to fight the hero,” he says. “There’s a backstory for Dr. Sivana. You totally understand where he comes from. It makes it a little bit more interesting, and the stakes a little higher.” 

Action stations

“And... action!” 

TF are inside the set of the foster home, built from the ground up. It’s a warm, colourful space, and a design especially close to Spence’s heart given she used to run a group home for nine to 13-year-olds in Vancouver. Freddy and Billy have just snuck back in after a night of adventure, only it’s not easy creeping up the stairs when your mind says you’re a boy but your body says you’re a 6ft 4in adult. Levi is hilarious in take after take, perhaps because he knows just what it’s like to undergo a rapid physical change – the moment he landed the role he started hitting the gym six times a week to pile on 25lb of muscle. He’s now, as Safran points out, a similar size to Jason Momoa in Aquaman. 

Outside, occupying an entire backlot, is a carnival set that lies broken and ruined having already homed one of the movie’s biggest set-pieces. Much of the fairground was built from scratch by Spence and her talented team, though a Ferris Wheel was imported whole from St. Louis. It’s now on its side like a flipped coin. 

The action in Shazam! will be an artful mix of practical and CGI. Shown some footage, TF witnesses the devastation of a mall by actors on wires, while Levi explains how he fought against a stunt team playing the Seven Deadly Sins (“They were in funny little suits, with antenna where the eyes are...”) before CG augmentation turned them into “genuine monsters that strike fear.” It was, he says, “so fucking cool”, and hearing a curse word escape the lips of this man-child is more shocking than anything that Sloth, Gluttony and co could ever come up with. 

Strong, laughing, explains why he was delighted to spend his days dangling having spent months “working on his core” to get in on the action. “There is one scene in Green Lantern which is this fight between Sinestro [played by Strong] and the Lanterns. It all takes place in space, and there’s something like 150 Lanterns, and then there’s this thing, and they throw a big rope chain over it. The only bit that’s real in the whole epic battle sequence is my head.” 

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Shazam! looks like the real deal, in every way. The concept’s fresh, the action impacts, the gags zing, and the sets and props wow (holding the wizard’s 7ft staff as it glows from within is a genuine thrill). Then there are the stunning costumes: Shazam’s outfit cost a cool million dollars to create, and Sivana’s is pure ’70s pimp, from the silk shirt and lightweight leather coat with gold lining that acts as his cape, to the faux fur with gold texture and the suit trimmed with midnight-purple leather. 

But most of all, Shazam! is the superhero movie we need right now. Just as many comics gave us heroes to banish the evils of WW2, so Shazam! is all about fun and heart as it celebrates diversity in the form of Billy’s new foster family, and comes armed with the message that all of us have a superhero within. It looks like a slam-dunk, though it does beg the question of how Shazam will fit into the moody world of the Justice League down the line.

Big leagues

“Oh man, it’s better answered by someone above my pay grade,” grins Levi. “Our generals are looking to how all things will tie in. But I think Justice League showed you could have dark, gritty stuff with some good heart and humour. Gal was incredibly effervescent. The Flash and even Aquaman had some funny moments. Moving forward, I think they’ll learn from that.” 

But wait a moment... Will the integration start now? Shazam!, after all, is set in the DCEU after the events of Justice League, and Billy’s bestie, Freddy, is a superhero nut who’s forever banging on about Batman and Supes. Might either, or both, cameo? “We’ll just have to see!” smiles Sandberg. “You never know! There’s a possibility,” adds Safran.

Everyone, as you’d expect, is playing it close to their chests, but Levi at least is happy – nay, delighted – to look into the future. “I want to be a part of the Justice League so fucking bad!” he bellows, the F-bomb again coming as a mighty shock. “That would be amazing! Shazam would fit. The person he’d be closest to is The Flash because of their youth and humour. And we’ve gotta have Shazam and Superman interactions. They’re, like, the same, but totally different, and there are some really awesome fights throughout the comic books and also the cartoons, where Shazam and Superman team up to beat Black Adam! It’s been laid out for us! Let’s just go do all that stuff!” 

It sure sounds good to us.

This feature originally appeared in our sister publication Total Film magazine, issue 281. Pick up a copy now or subscribe so you never miss an issue.  

(Image credit: Warner Bros/Total Film)
Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.