It’s late on a Friday afternoon when Den of Geek and a handful of others are shepherded onto a sound mixing stage at Warner Bros. Studios to get a new(ish) glimpse of Shazam!, the upcoming movie based on one of DC’s most venerable and purely enjoyable characters. Shazam! is, at its heart, a story of wish fulfillment, as teen orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel, aged up slightly from the comic book version of the character) is granted the ability by an ancient wizard to transform into a super-powered adult being with strength, invincibility, flight and other powers — all by saying the wizard’s name: Shazam!
The joke is that Shazam (Zachary Levi) is still Billy on the inside, so the movie becomes the story of how a 14-year-old Philadelphia boy suddenly deals with the responsibilities and consequences of becoming an immensely powerful superhero. But Shazam! the movie is no broodfest: director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) is aiming for fun, excitement, awe and wonder — exactly what a kid would feel if he out of nowhere acquired the powers of, say, Superman.
“Right from the start it’s just that the concept lends itself to so much fun,” says Sandberg as he and producer Peter Safran join the small group on the mixing stage. “Like what would you do, you know? It’s not just the super power but just being an adult. Like, oh, he’ll try out beer. So yeah, the concept itself just lends itself to a very fun tone, and we really lean into that.”
“That’s why Shazam! is always going to be different than Aquaman or Justice League or Birds of Prey,” adds Safran. “It always had its own tone, which is why it was so much fun to go down this path to make this movie. I think it’s why DC were so excited about it, to tell a superhero story that had a completely different tone than anything that had come before it.”
Sandberg and Safran are here to show us some more footage from Shazam!, although what we get to see ends up being an extended version of the first and so far only trailer to emerge for the movie. But it’s a doozy of an extended trailer, as the footage barrels through Billy’s arrival at the orphanage, the beginning of his friendship with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the bullying that both have to deal with at school. It’s Billy’s decision to stand up for Freddy that perhaps directly marks him as worthy of the powers which he is about to be bestowed with.
Once he gets those powers, the footage takes on a decidedly zanier tone as he and Freddy experiment with the range of what Billy can do when he’s in the shape of Shazam. There’s also an extended look at Billy’s return to the subway from which he is plucked by the wizard — except he shows up on the train still in his superhero body and costume, much to the amusement of the subway’s other passengers. One notable thing we saw in addition to the footage of him stopping a convenience store robbery was also an attempt to stop a young woman from being mugged, although she proves quite formidable on her own.
Levi is physically impressive in the Shazam outfit, while also channeling the sheer delight and impulsiveness of a young teenage boy. “We had quite an extensive search,” says Sandberg about the process of getting Levi for the role. “Many, many auditions. Then, looking at self-tapes and all that. So yeah, he sent in a self-tape, one of many, but when we landed on his, it was like, ‘This is the guy.’”
“You know, Zack is this character,” says Safran, who adds that they saw Levi’s tape on a Friday and had cast him in the part by the following Tuesday. “Zack is a 14 year old boy trapped in a superhero’s body, and he would acknowledge that. I’m not saying anything he would not say about himself. He’s a kid, and it was just so perfect when we saw what he did with the audition, and he kind of brought that every single day to being Shazam, even in a very difficult shooting condition. We shot in Toronto in the winter, night exteriors for weeks on end, and he just brought to it an enthusiasm that never waned.”
The footage also delivers a few more glimpses of the movie’s classic villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played deliciously by Mark Strong. “He was actually the first and only guy we ever went to,” Safran remarks. “We were looking at these lists, and everybody’s like, ‘Mark’s always just good in everything he does. He’s just always good,’ and he hadn’t played a villain in a while. Early in his career he’d done a bunch of them, but he hadn’t done it in a while. We reached out, he loved the script, and was thinking about doing something his kids would enjoy. He lived up to all of our expectations. He’s a fantastic villain.”
Sivana is one of Shazam’s greatest enemies, making him a fitting choice for the superhero’s origin story. “I think Sivana is kind of almost Shazam’s oldest villain,” says Sandberg. “When I came on board it was always Sivana. I think they sort of played with the idea of having the first movie including both Shazam and Black Adam, but it was felt that that needs more setup than you want to spend in the first movie, because you want to introduce (Shazam) first.”
Ah yes, Black Adam — perhaps Shazam’s most popular and constant nemesis, and a character at first slated to appear in Shazam! and portrayed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, before it was decided that he would first star in his own still-in-development movie. “He’s a perfect adversary, so one would hope that eventually you see those two on screen together at some point,” says Safran. “But it’s not going to be in this one.”
The producer also insists that a rumored post-credits cameo by Johnson is a “complete myth” and that there was “never a conversation” about doing one with the wrestler-turned-actor. Safran and Sandberg do acknowledge, however, that the movie does feature a post-credits scene, with Safran saying, “It’s probably the same decision making that one has on all of these movies, which is: what’s going to be fun, what’s going to be satisfying for the audience, what’s going to be a nice punctuation mark at the end of the movie?” He adds, “We had a lot of options. I think we ended up with something good.”
The question of what might be included in a post-credits sequence leads inevitably down another line of inquiry: how connected is Shazam! to the greater DC film universe? The latter itself has been going through a transitional phase, with the recent (and massively successful) Aquaman having little or no connective tissue to the films — like Justice League, Man of Steel and Wonder Woman — that have come before it.
As seen in the trailer and the footage shown to us, Billy and Freddy do live in the DC Universe, where heroes like Superman and Batman do exist. “Absolutely, yeah,” confirms Sandberg. “They live in a world where these things are real, which is also fun to explore, because we don’t really see that aspect of it, like how would pop culture — will they still have the toys, the action figures that we have? They do. It’s just based on real things.”
But, Peter Safran insists, Shazam! is also free of whatever constraints there may be in having to work within the parameters of a larger, existing narrative spanning multiple movies. “The main thing for us was always to just make it the best movie possible,” explains the producer. “There was never any attempt whatsoever to try to shoehorn it into any kind of existing storylines or universe. They gave David tremendous freedom in terms of how to make the movie. I think that was one of the things that was appealing to him, to tell this great origin story, this fun, action-packed, wish fulfillment movie, and go make the best version of it that you can make.”
Sandberg echoes that sentiment as our session together wraps up, but also hints that there is a lot more story to tell in future movies, whether they are part of a shared universe or not. “Obviously you have a limited amount of real estate when you make a movie,” he says. “So I think we only just have gotten into what the potential of Shazam is, and also for our film it’s about Billy discovering his potential, so it’s about him learning what his powers are and how they work, in conjunction with Freddy. So it’s kind of a starting point more than anything else for him. I think there’s a lot more to go.”
Shazam! is out in theaters April 5.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye