To understand Dr. Sivana, a character played by Mark Strong in the upcoming Shazam movie, it helps to have a little bit of a grasp on some ancient comic book history. The Shazam concept (back when he was called, yes, Captain Marvel), was indisputably a response to Superman and the superhero boom that kicked off the golden age of comics. You swap a sci-fi origin for a magical one, you swap a whole lot of blue in the costume for a whole lot of red, and you’re still left with a super strong, flying, invulnerable, and caped hero. Hell, his very first comic (1939’s Whiz Comics #2) even featured him abusing an automobile, just like Superman did on the cover of 1938’s Action Comics #1.
Some might scratch the surface and point out that both heroes are menaced by bald mad scientists for much of their careers. But it’s important to note that Dr. Sivana, the greatest villain in the Shazam mythos (Black Adam came along much later and only became prominent in recent years) beat the similarly follically challenged Lex Luthor to the newsstands by several months. So there’s something historic about a villain who has been around as long as Sivana finally making his big screen debut.
Strong, of course, has a history with DC villains, having previously played Sinestro in the ill-fated Green Lantern movie of 2011. While Strong has made his reputation as an actor playing intense, looming characters, you wouldn’t know that to talk to him. Affable and funny while talking to journalists during a 2018 visit to the Shazam set, the actor clearly did his homework when it comes to Dr. Sivana, at one point casually referencing a 1940 comic book story where the villain became the emperor of Venus.
“Originally, he was a scientist and I think the story was he was thwarted and the world didn’t understand him… in fact, he originally he went to Venus and then came back,” Strong says. “I don’t think my Sivana goes there necessarily. Nevertheless, he’s able to sort of channel that thing that all great super villains do, which is a need to have complete power and basically rule everything.”
The version of Sivana that we’ll meet in the Shazam movie is quite different from the hunched, cackling mad scientist who menaced our hero for nearly 80 years. That Sivana was known for increasingly ludicrous, almost whimsical schemes intended to destroy his enemies and rule the world, rarely (if ever) with lethal (or even effective) results. Instead, he’s based more directly on Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s 2012 reimagining of the character as a magically powered relic hunter, capable of matching Shazam in battle, just as the original version had to use his evil mind to outsmart superheroic muscle.
“He gets to fly, he can create electric fields in his hands, and fire electricity,” Strong says. “He’s much more robust and much more powerful.”
“[Mark] has such a great look to him,” says costume designer Leah Butler. “He’s tall, he stands well, he’s very strong and different than the slouched over mad scientist that he has been in the past.”
So just as Shazam is a magically powered superhero, so this Sivana is a magically powered villain. The impression is of a misguided Indiana Jones type who spends his life obsessed with the acquisition of magical relics and the power it can bring him after a brush with destiny. It’s something that you can see reflected in his wardrobe, which steps away from the white lab coat, long the character’s trademark comic book look, in favor of something far more eye catching if a bit retro.
“In looking at different ideas for him, I’ve actually come across some little tidbits throughout the history of him being a wealthy tycoon,” Butler says. “He has his own company in our movie, Sivana Industries. He’s wealthy. He feels like he’s better than everyone else. He’s almost royal in his own mind.”
Butler refers to the black leather overcoat and stylish clothing, none of which could be further away from a skin tight red and gold superhero costume, as Sivana’s “armor against Shazam.” But that look also illustrates how both Shazam and Sivana’s appearances reflect their ideal perceptions of themselves.
“The Shazam suit is really an incarnation of a superhero suit as seen by a 13/14-year-old boy,” Strong says. “It’s a little bit garish, it’s a little bit bright but that’s how he imagines it. Consequently, I had to think is that what [Sivana] thinks is evil incarnate? So he’s chosen a long, sort of Nazi-like long leather coat with a fur collar and a pair of dark sunglasses, because I suppose as he gets that evil power, this is how he chooses to manifest himself in the way that he looks. You’ve got a young boy with the enthusiasm for all the power that he’s given and you’ve got a cynical old guy with the opposite of that who’s chosen to take a darker path and really use that power for his own personal gain rather than to help other people.”
But despite all of the distancing from the original comic book version of days gone by, there’s one important nod to Sivana’s comic book look. “It was really important for [Shazam director] David [Sandberg] to have this collar that stands out from that lab coat look of the old mad scientist version,” Butler says.
And that isn’t the only classic Sivana element that will make it into the movie. A key point in the Sivana/Shazam rivalry has always been how infuriating Sivana finds his opponent. The innocence of Shazam is a perfect counterpoint to the cynicism and avarice of Sivana.
“[Sivana] can’t understand that the Wizard has chosen this boy as his champion,” Strong says. “The wizard has chosen a boy, and he realizes that obviously that boy manifests himself into the Zachary version of Shazam. To him it’s a source of total incomprehension why this boy should have been chosen over him.”
Strong told Sandberg and producer Peter Safran that he felt “Sivana should be like heat seeking ballistic evil,” to help offset the inherent comedy of a 14-year-old boy in a man’s body with superpowers. “The more frightening you make him, the more you feel that the kids are in jeopardy, and therefore the more that balance of good and evil plays out satisfactorily,” he says. “He needs to be a terrifying nemesis.”
Sandberg seems to feel like they found the right actor for the villain, too.
“He really enjoys playing a villain,” Sandberg says of Strong. “He really has fun with being a bad guy, which is great, because it’s just so fun to watch with someone who enjoys being evil.”
“They do always say that a hero is only as good as his villain,” Strong says. “So I’m hoping to make Sivana really iconic.”
Shazam opens on April 5. The full DCEU movie schedule can be found here.