There’s one major challenge that faces DC superhero movies, and it is one that’s not quite as present for their competition: the costumes of their heroes. While most Marvel costumes can be explained away as functional extensions of their scientific, secret agent, or otherworldly professions, DC superhero costumes tend to be, well, superhero costumes. It’s a little tougher to find practical explanations for the fashion choices of DCEU headliners. After all, they’re often as traditional as they come, and some of them date back to the golden age of comics.
Man of Steel got around this by leaning hard into the idea of Superman’s costume as Kryptonian ceremonial wear, while Aquaman delivered a note-perfect translation of King Arthur’s orange and green garb, and even achieved the seemingly impossible task of making it look darn cool in the process. Batman is a jerk who likes to scare people. You get the idea. But what about Shazam? That’s a superhero suit, no two ways about it. Not only that, it’s one originally designed to mirror Superman’s and catch maximum attention on the newsstands of the early 1940s. The folks responsible for bringing the Shazam movie to life had quite a hill to climb to give the red, yellow, and white of the Shazam costume the same kind of smart rationale that its DCEU peers had.
So how did they do it? By grounding the Shazam movie costume in both ancient mythology and the imagination of the young boy who says the magic word to become a superhero with the powers of six legendary figures. Well, as much as anything can actually be “grounded” in those worlds.
Director David F. Sandberg and costume designer Leah Butler wanted every element of the Shazam costume to have some continuity with both the character’s golden age comic book roots and the mythology that informs it, from incorporating ancient symbols into the design to the materials chosen, right down to the justification of the bright red and gold that define his look. I had an up close look at the iconic suit during a set visit, and Butler explained every detail.
The Basic Design
The most striking thing about the Shazam costume has always been its use of red and gold. Long before the second version of the Flash popularized that particular color combo, this was a deliberate inversion of Superman’s reliance on the (relatively) muted blue with red and yellow accents. In the modern superhero era, a character sporting colors this bright (and which glow, no less!) had better be able to move faster than a marsksman’s eye can follow, or else they might be said to have a death wish. But the Shazam movie isn’t content to just let the iconic colors be the colors, Sandberg and Butler strove to explain each element of the suit in a manner that makes sense within this magical corner of the DCEU.
“Red is often the most intense color, emotionally, in the spectrum,” Butler reads from a statement she and Sandberg had prepared during the early days of production to help cement their vision. As Butler points out, the Greeks used blood as a pigment in ancient times. And while red makes up the majority of the body of the suit, it is augmented by gold (not yellow) highlights in the gauntlets, belt, and boots. That’s a pretty standard and practical color switch when transitioning a superhero costume to live action, but one that even here was given some ancient justification.
“In Ancient Greece, gold was a metal that was precious to the gods, to the extent that they were dressed in gold,” Butler continues. “The color and luster of the gold continues to be associated with the sun and the sacred masculine. The approach to costume is also borne from organic elements, and will feel sacred and true as opposed to machine like, severe, or manufactured. This design will be approached with these basics is in mind.”
Both Butler and Sandberg were intent on keeping the look as true to the character’s comic book history as possible. And while the basics of the Shazam design have remained relatively unchanged since the 1940s, that recognizable look is blended with more modern flourishes taken from the character’s New 52 comic book design (from writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank). It also takes cues from current superhero movie sensibilities, such as the presence of texturing on the body of the suit itself. But even this isn’t a random design element. Instead, a closer examination of the costume reveals what Butler describes as a “Greek key pattern.”
The overall effect of the costume is one of a very specific kind of superheroics, and that was intentional as well. “He’s a little boy who transforms into a superhero,” Butler says. “We wanted to keep his feel real to the comic.”
The Lightning Bolt Logo
While perhaps not as recognizable to modern audiences as Superman’s S or the iconic black bat, there was a time when Shazam comics were the top selling superhero books in the world, even outselling the Man of Steel himself for a period in the 1940s. Recent comic book incarnations of the character have seen the lightning bolt logo as something that glows, emanating and representing the power of Shazam. That is carried over into the movie costume, but what’s interesting is how it isn’t a visual effect but built in as a practical piece of the suit itself. The same light that powers the bolt can also be seen in the gauntlets of the costume, too. But there’s more to this than just design.
“We wanted to have some practical lighting on the face, because he is going to be lit up during the movie,” Butler says. “The director and the DP really wanted to do some shadows and see some actual, practical light… It’s a very thin lighting element that is adjustable. We’re able to adjust the temperature of the light and how visual it is while we’re shooting.”
Sure enough, a remote control can dim the glow of the bolt and gauntlets, or raise them to a surprisingly powerful brightness. It’s easy to see how this could be used to reflect the mood or power levels of its title character.
“Luckily enough, the stunt guy and [Shazam star] Zach [Levi] have actually not broken one yet,” Butler jokes. “I can’t believe it.”
The cape breaks from modern tradition in several ways. For starters, in keeping with the traditional comic book look, the cape isn’t quite as long as what we usually get in superhero movies. In the comics, the Shazam cape was always more decorative and jaunty, the kind of length you would associate more with a marching band or Vegas-era Elvis (who was a Shazam fan) than a piece of Kryptonian ceremonial wear or something designed to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.
The movie version isn’t quite so short, but it’s definitely not as deliberately regal as his other caped contemporaries. “The length of the cape is shorter than maybe your traditional Superman,” she says. “And it was very pleasing actually, that he has this kind of fun length to the cape, which shows a lot of movement and action, and just has a sort of more useful, light feel to it.”
There’s a hood attached, as well, which is adapted from more recent comic book costumes. And while most superhero movie capes tend to have a heavier look to them, the Shazam cape appears more natural, and the kind of thing that could come from the ancient world. Butler points out that it’s simply made from wool. That same Greek-inspired key design that makes up the texturing on the body of the suit can also be seen on the edges of the cape, at a far more visible size.
“I wanted to incorporate a little bit of everything, not just New 52, but the older stuff as well,” Sandberg says. “The suit is one part of that where it’s like, ‘yeah, I want the shorter cape of the Golden Age comics.’ But then ‘let’s try the hood from the New 52,’ and little things like that, and trying to balance it. So we have things and references from the old comics, but a lot of the story takes inspiration from the New 52. So it’s a combination of, ‘oh, I like this, and we like that, and let’s put it together.’”
Comic book fans should take a close look at the buttons that hold the cape to the costume, as well. Each is engraved with the image of a tiger, an animal that holds great significance for fans of Shazam comics.
Comics readers may be familiar with Mr. Tawny, a talking tiger who becomes an ally of Billy Batson and friends. In the original comics, Mr. Tawny joins human civilization, and goes about his business in an immaculately tailored suit, sometimes startling passerby, but otherwise being a perfect gentleman.
While recent versions of the Shazam story have been far less whimsical, Mr. Tawny remains a magical presence even in the modern comics, and he’s a welcome presence on this design. Tawny’s inclusion on the suit “came about because we started and going through history and different genres and symbolism… I was thinking of lions and something strong,” Butler says, before somebody pointed out that it wasn’t much of a stretch to get from there to tigers and along came Mr. Tawny.
The boots aren’t traditional (often tactical) superhero footwear, either, and have some ancient design flourishes of their own. “You take that sort of gladiator sandal look and you actually make it on something that takes it to a different place,” Butler says. “We wanted it to be a little bit stronger.”
The internet being the internet, there had been some back and forth about the additional musculature added to the costume, something that’s standard practice in modern superhero costumes, but that nonetheless causes debate among fans. Levi responded by posting some impressive workout photos on Instagram, proving that he had put the hours in at the gym to help embody a character known for the “strength of Hercules” and “the stamina of Atlas.” The guys at Superhero Jacked have put together an approximation of what it took for Levi to get into Shazam shape and…it’s pretty serious.
“The only all-natural person ever in history was Christopher Reeve,” Butler says of the non-controversy. “But Zack got in incredible shape. We were very thankful that he was able to do that, and his form has really helped so much and really shows our Shazam the way he should be. I think Zack has worked really hard, I don’t know if you’ve seen the photos but he’s done a really great job.”
“These guys have to get in shape, because if you don’t work out the suit’s gonna work you,” Specialty costumer Federico Cervantes agrees. “Especially for action. Sometimes it’s like wearing a rubber band, because there’s a lot of resistance and the first thing we try to tell everybody is they’re gonna be uncomfortable. It’s that pressure in the shoulders and back straighteners.”
Butler and Cervantes point out that even getting Levi in and out of the suit was a challenge early on. By late in the production, he could be in the suit in about three minutes, which is quite the improvement over the near hour it initially took.
“The suit is very, very tight,” Levi confesses during an interview later in the day. “To be perfectly honest, I can only do number one in it. They have to take the whole thing off to drop a deuce and that’s a pain in the ass. But these are the prices you pay to be a superhero? Fucking sign me up. It’s great.”
Shazam opens on April 5. The full DCEU movie schedule can be found here.