Could Shazam be the perfect antidote to Batman’s brooding nihilism and Superman’s existential angst?
Zachary Levi, who plays the titular role in the body-swap comedy with super powers, Shazam! (a kind of Big meets Superman), certainly hopes so.
Fulfilling a superhero dream
In fact, for the self-confessed comic book and video game nerd, the chance to play a superhero was a dream come true. "The wish fulfilment that the movie is about is the same wish fulfilment that's been in my own life. It's so incredible," he tells The National.
"To have loved superheroes, comics, video games and all that stuff for so long, always dreaming like, 'Oh, you know, maybe I'll get a shot at playing a bona fide superhero one day.' And then being 37 and being like, 'I don't know. Maybe I missed my shot?' Then getting this role and playing this 14-year-old inside? I feel like it was destined to be, because I'm just kind of a big man-child in a lot of ways. It's just been very dreamy."
Understandably, 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) doesn't immediately slip comfortably into the role of saviour of the world, instead using his new-found powers to acquire money and illicit substances, skip school, and do all the fun things you might expect of a wayward teenager suddenly blessed with superhuman abilities. With time, however, as well as the guidance of his friend, fellow foster kid and comic book geek Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Batson begins to understand the true nature of both himself and his awesome powers. "Ultimately, Billy Batson is chosen to be Earth's mightiest mortal, Shazam, because of his heart, because of the strength and purity and depth of his heart, traits that even Billy doesn't know he has," Levi explains.
Trust in the director's vision
"Freddy is my little Yoda almost. He's the real superhero aficionado, so he's the one who knows about all of them and their powers. He has studied them, so to have that coach, that guy in my corner, teaching me the ropes and telling me about all the various things that these superheroes can do, or testing out different powers. There's so much comedy and so much fun in all of that stuff. It was one of my favorite parts of doing the movie."
Although Levi says he enjoyed shooting his scenes with Grazer, the actor reveals that he barely spent any time on set with Angel, despite the actors both playing the same character. "Asher was still shooting his television show [Disney Channel's Andi Mack] when we were starting production on the movie. So, Ash and I got a couple of days of some meetings, having a meal, getting to know each other, and some rehearsals with David Sandberg, the film's director," says Levi.
Beyond that, he says, the cast simply had to trust Sandberg's vision to join the disparate parts of the movie together. "That's what you're doing with a director any time, because they're the ones seeing all the pieces. We're just there to provide what our services are at any given point," he says.
The real life lessons to take from the film
The movie may be the most light-hearted entry into the DC canon to date, but Levi insists that doesn't make it lightweight – the movie's themes, he says, can teach us all a lesson in the real world. "The depth of the themes in this movie was one of the things I loved most about it," he says.
“As a spiritual person, getting to play a hero with a pure heart, who is tasked with defeating sin is like, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s go take down Sloth and Greed and Envy and Pride and all of these things that are screwing with our heads and our hearts.’ And what if we did that? What if we could do that? I want to be able to use this and the platform that comes with this movie to genuinely talk about that and to keep building empathy with people. If nothing else, I hope my life’s work is building bridges and building empathy and having people love more, because it’s pertinent and applicable all through time. It’s the human condition.”
Impressing a loyal fandom
Landing a superhero role may have been a dream come true for avowed fanboy Levi, but in a sense it also places a special responsibility on his shoulders. After all, the film will ultimately be judged by his own kind, his fellow fanboys and girls. I ask what Levi hopes they will take away from the movie. "From a very specific fanboy perspective, I want all those fanboys and fangirls to have felt considered and thought of and respected in how we tackle the source material and how we honour that source material," he says.
"It's a difficult thing to do, and I've had some social media conversations with some folks about some of this stuff. The character has been around for a really long time, and it's gone through many different iterations. You've got old-school fans of a somewhat different character than what Shazam is now. The original Shazam would literally turn into a man – he wasn't a kid inside any more. To me, it's a much more interesting and dynamic character when he's still a kid inside, and certainly a lot of fun to play."
Levi is probably right about that, though it is still quite a departure from the character in the original comic. Does he think the purists will forgive him? “I really hope that all the fanboys and fangirls will walk away from this going, ‘They busted their butts to try and make this as true to the heart of the character that we all liked and fell in love with.’ Because we did.”