Shazam isn’t just a title, name, or magic word. It’s an anagram for six mythological gods and heroes and the heroic qualities they represent. When spoken by a worthy candidate, saying “Shazam” grants an individual the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. But the key to all of this isn’t the raw power it represents, but the worthiness of the person who wields it.
And in Shazam!, the first feature length movie about the beloved superhero, much is made of the wizard’s quest to find someone worthy of passing on the powers of the magical champion. From the earliest Shazam stories, it was said that Billy Batson was chosen because he is “pure of heart.” But the Billy (played by Asher Angel) we first meet on screen in Shazam! appears to be anything but. He’s mischievous and selfish, maybe even a little deceptive. Nevertheless, when he says that one magic word, he becomes a hero. So how did the young actor find the necessary heroic qualities in a Billy Batson who is a little rough around the edges?
“It’s just he’s gone through so much, and I really feel for him, and I feel like him being pure in heart, strong in spirit is because he really is a good kid really inside,” Angel says. “It’s just everything that’s happened in his life has just basically changed him. Once he realizes he’s got superpowers, he’s like, ‘Hey, I could save the world! This is me.’ He’s happy, he meets new friends, now he has Freddy, and now you feel like he’s actually finding his real family.”
But don’t forget that there are two actors responsible for bringing Billy to life, Angel plays the teenager, while Zachary Levi is still Billy Batson… just in an adult (and superheroic) body. So even Levi had to find ways to channel all of Billy’s qualities, in ways that go far beyond the red suit and white cape.
“[Billy] being pure of heart I think is the linchpin,” Levi says. “That’s why the wizard Shazam chooses him and has always chosen him throughout all the comics and lineage of this role. It’s his purity of heart, and it’s one of the things that I probably love the most about the character. I’ve also gotten to play other characters like that. I don’t know if I’m finding these roles or if they’re finding me, however that works, but I just really like being a good person and playing good people, and I think that all starts with the heart. And then, of course, having a sense of humor and a little swag. All that stuff kind of helps round out Billy.”
The change that comes over Billy when he says the magic word is more than just physical, though. It helps his outlook a little, too.
“I noticed that Billy is a lot more fun when he’s Shazam,” Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Billy’s foster brother Freddy Freeman, says. “He’s more angsty, he’s dreading everything, and he’s more dismal when he’s just Billy Batson. And so when he gets granted these powers, I think he finds himself, and he’s just ecstatic about having these powers later on in the film rather than being confused and stuff. And he really finds himself. And then I interact with him differently when he’s not being a jerk to me.”
Shazam! opens on April 5. Read our spoiler-free review here.