With Shazam!, WB’s transition away from grimdark cinematic universe-building and over to family-friendly, lighthearted standalone adventures is complete. Their films – beginning with Wonder Woman, then Aquaman, and now Shazam! – continue to paint in broader strokes than their Marvel Studios counterparts and sometimes lack in the substance department, but damn are they fun.
Shazam!, with all of its Amblin throwback vibes, is easily the most effortlessly entertaining one yet (read my review). The following is the story of how a horror director, former geek TV star, and decades of convoluted comic book history combined to “zap an old-fashioned superhero into a blockbuster world,” as The AVClub put it.
The Ultimate Wish Fulfillment Fantasy
Classical superhero stories are, at their core, kid power fantasies, and the superheroes with the most universal appeal are the ones which speak to the kid in all of us. The actual business of being a superhero, however, is almost always left up to adult characters. Outside of Spider-Man and the Teen Titans, it’s rare for actual kid or teen characters to take center stage in these kinds of stories.
Peter Safran, the former The Conjuring Universe contributor who has graduated to helping fix Warner Bros.’s superhero universe starting with Shazam!, clearly saw all of that and did his best variation on the “hold my beer” meme…except instead of “beer” he likely said something more age appropriate for a PG-13 production. Whereas every other superhero movie is content to force kids to project themselves onto adult characters, Shazam! aims for the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy: by uttering a single word, a kid named Billy Batson magically becomes his own Superman!
That premise proved to be utterly irresistible to the kids of the early 1940s when Shazam was introduced as Captain Marvel and briefly became the best-selling comic book in the land, even surpassing Superman – the character, incidentally, he was created to rip off. A convoluted history of lawsuits, film serials, name/ownership changes, continuity reboots, and even a short-lived TV show followed, turning Shazam into one of those long-running characters who has always kind of been around on the periphery of pop culture. He’s the type of character people might be vaguely aware of but know nothing about.
A Horror Director Making a Superhero Movie? Yeah, That Makes Sense. See also: Sam Raimi, James Wan.
David F. Sandberg used to be in that group. A Scandinavian director who got his start making a short horror film in his own apartment with his wife as the star, Sandberg was groomed in house at New Line on movies like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. When Safran, his producing partner on Annabelle, approached him about directing Shazam!, Sandberg’s response was a mixture of joy and confusion. “I was just very happy that they’d offer such a movie to me,” he told SFX Magazine. “I was somewhat familiar with the character, but not too much.”
Due to that lack of familiarity, New Line, which had been developing the project since the early 2000s, didn’t pitch him on the opportunity to be the one to get to make the great Shazam! movie because that wouldn’t mean anything. Instead, their one-sentence pitch was simple and instantly understandable: “It’s Big, but with superpowers.”
The “it’s like […], but with…” formula is the new in thing these days. Groundhog Day has now become a horror franchise (Happy Death Day/Happy Death Day 2U). What Women Want, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the Oceans 11 franchise have all received the gender-switched remake/update treatment (What Men Want, The Hustle, Oceans 8). Shazam isn’t even the only “it’s like, but with” version of Big hitting theaters in 2019. There’s also Little, which sees Regina Hall’s boss-from-hell turning into a 13-year-old, meaning the film is a premise-inverted AND gender AND race-switched take on Big. I feel as if I should applaud.
It can be a bit much, this endless parade of movies that look a lot like someone just putting a new hat on Malibu Stacy and calling it a revolution. However, a proven story concept is a terrible thing to waste. To Sandberg, Big as a superhero movie “sounded like the best idea ever,” and everyone who came into contact with the project seemed to agree.
The Rock Almost Lays the Smack Down
That’s certainly what drew Dwayne Johnson to it back in 2008 when there was briefly going to be a Shazam movie starring him as villain Black Adam and directed by Anger Management’s Peter Segal. WB’s preference to go darker post-Dark Knight turned that particular project into the chipper cousin booted from the table. However, it must have stuck with Johnson since he eventually found record-breaking success with a very similar project: Jumanji, which ran with “it’s like Big meets The Breakfast Club but as a video game movie.”
(Johnson remains attached to a potential Black Adam solo movie, but when that will actually happen remains a mystery. Recent reports indicate if Shazam! is successful Black Adam will go in front of the cameras next and then the two title characters will co-star in a team-up/versus kind of movie.)
As Jumanji showed, you can clearly make a blockbuster out of the Big story, but you need the perfect cast. Ask most adult actors to play a kid in an adult’s body and their strategy will be to simply lower their IQ several points and play dumb. That certainly earns a few cheap laughs. However, as Tom Hanks and the Jumanji cast showed, it’s more meaningful if you can find someone who naturally exudes a certain innocence and exuberance.
From Buy More Super Spy to Superhero
In Shazam!’s case, that’s Chuck star Zachary Levi, a self-described “adrenaline-addicted manchild” who – when asked by Total Film if he could say “Shazam!” and turn into anything in the world what would he be – shouted out the following without hesitation:
“A bowl of Ice cream! But then I’m eating myself, which would be weird. Anything? Just the best me. That sounds cheesy but genuinely.”
Actually, that sounds like a youthful mind and the soul of a champion to me – exactly what Billy Batson needs to be.
Everyone saw that…other than Zachary Levi.
“My agency had set up an audition for me for the role of Shazam about two months prior to me getting the job and I passed on it because I genuinely didn’t think they were interested in someone like me,” Levi told Sci-Fi Now. “I thought I would be wasting everybody’s time. The Rock had been cast as Black Adam and I knew that I was half his size. Also, while I’ve had a pretty good career so far, I know that a lot of the time they’re looking for really big names for those types of roles.”
Keep in mind this is a man who played the supporting character Fandral in the second Thor movie – Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, an actor nobody knew about beforehand. Still, when you’re entering into a new cinematic universe in which Ben Affleck is Batman and The Rock is Black Adam, it’s understandable for Levi to feel inadequate. You miss every shot you don’t take and all that, but luckily Levi got a second chance. Months after he first passed on it, Shazam! came back around to him, this time with an opportunity to audition for a smaller supporting role. He put himself on tape and sent in his audition.
6 days and countless calls, Skype sessions, and additional auditions later, he was their Shazam. Even though Levi’s initial audition tape was for a different part, Sandberg recognized him as their perfect Shazam immediately. “We looked at probably over a hundred people before we saw Zach’s self-tape and we were like: ‘This is the guy, he’s perfect.’ Because he feels like a big kid and he has that enthusiasm and joy about him that defines kids, really.”
We Have to Talk About the Suit
Appropriately, Levi was in a gym when he first heard learned he was about to spend several months of his life in tights with a lit-up lightning bolt down firing down his chest. The gym soon became his second home, but no amount of training or 3,000-calorie-a-day dieting could give him a body that could truly fill out the costume. For that, they would have to turn to an intricate muscle suit, the type of thing superhero movies seemingly left behind with Joel Schumacher’s bat nipples.
Except Clooney and pals had the benefit of modeling those costumes in a pre-social media era. Shazam!, not so much. Once set pictures of Levi in costume leaked, the inevitable snarky reactions seemed to doom Shazam! before it had really even started.
Next up: David Sandberg perseveres through internet backlash, sickness, and one too many night shoots and finally pushes Shazam! over the finish line. You can read that story here.
Shazam! opens in theaters around the world April 5th.