Shazam! introduces a new magically powered villain to the DCEU. Well, “new” is relative when you’re talking about Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, a supervillain with 80 years of comic book history behind him. And the actor who plays him, Mark Strong, has some supervillain history of his own.
Strong, of course, was one of the only good things about the 2011 Green Lantern movie, an ill-fated attempt to kick off a DC superhero cinematic universe. There, Strong played Sinestro, a respected officer of the Green Lantern Corps who, of course, is destined to eventually become Hal Jordan’s greatest enemy. Strong was perfect in the role, and the movie waited until its own post-credits scene to tease his villainous destiny. But given how that movie was quickly swept under the rug, it may seem surprising to see Strong return to the DC villain well for Dr. Sivana in Shazam! He certainly doesn’t think so, though.
“Not at all,” Strong says when asked if he had any reservations about playing another DC supervillain. “I think Sivana is a fantastic character, and I think being part of the DC universe again was really cool. I’ve said it before, but I got to explore somewhere we should have gone with Sinestro but never had the opportunity to do.”
There’s no doubt that Sivana is evil, driven by greed and envy to seek out magical power of his own. But he’s far from the sniveling, cackling mad scientist of the comics. Instead, Strong plays Sivana with an icy calm and sense of purpose at all times. He let the character’s distinctive look help inform his performance.
“I think I was more influenced by the feel of the costume, that big leather coat, the way he carried himself, the fact that he comes from a slightly stiff upper lip type of family,” Strong says. “His father’s obviously the CEO of a massive Sivana Industries company. I tried to base him on that.”
Strong wasn’t very aware of the Shazam comics, as the character never reached the heights of popularity in the UK that he did in the US (although other characters native to the UK definitely took up the Shazam mold, but that’s a story for another time). As a result, he didn’t know Dr. Sivana, either. But Strong eagerly researched the role, noting little details like how Sivana was in the first ever Shazam story, or how Whiz Comics, the magazine where the characters debuted, technically began with issue #2, or Sivana’s time as ruler of Venus, or how the movie version of Sivana more resembles the recent comics than his early, mad scientist roots. “And also, having worked with Geoff Johns on Sinestro, I could pick his brain a little bit too,” he admits.
“I was fascinated to realize that … Sivana’s in the very first [Shazam story]. He’s in there right from the very beginning, as the nemesis,” Strong says. “So, obviously the original version was this sort of demented scientist who was misunderstood who goes to Venus and comes back with powers. But I realized that this is based on a more robust version.”
That “more robust” Sivana is the version updated by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank in a story published early in DC’s New 52 era, which updated the character with a better wardrobe, a stronger physique, and some magical powers. The rest of the backstory that the movie introduces is completely new to the character.
“Mark is such a stellar actor that you know when you got a guy like that you want to give him real stuff to play,” producer Peter Safran says. “You knew that anything you give him he’s just gonna nail it, and so it was great to have a fully fleshed out character that he could play. It was not just a generic villain.”
“It was important to give him that backstory and to really show that this is why he wound up where he did and that this is what separates him from Billy,” Shazam! director David F. Sandberg says. “It’s funny because I’ve seen people online for years have been saying he should play Lex Luthor in a Superman movie. It was fun to have him be sort of our Lex Luthor. In fact, Sivana, the character, actually pre-dates Lex Luthor.”
Strong is also quick to credit the director, and specifically Sandberg’s horror movie background, with helping cement Sivana’s menace.
“After I saw the movie, I was so delighted that David comes from the horror world, because it totally supports that character,” Strong says. “I’ve played a villains a lot, and you know, the villain comes in he does his thing. But there was something extra that David brought to it, that made him creepier and scarier than I thought he was going to be. I don’t know if he’s done it subliminally with music, or tone, or whatever it is. I mean certainly that boardroom sequence, he just filmed in such a way that you literally are open-mouthed at the fact that it’s a horrific world that Sivana is occupying. I think if you’re gonna have proper danger in the film, he’s got to be as scary as that, and obviously David’s background totally supported that.”