For a movie pitched as Big meets Superman, which tells the story of a streetwise youngster who’s able to transform into a grown-up superhero after an encounter with a magical wizard, it’s no surprise that Shazam! doesn’t take itself too seriously. When Asher Angel’s Billy Batson turns into Zachary Levi’s “Captain Sparklefingers”, he might look the part, but he’s still a teenage lad at heart – and the film mines a lot of its comedy from Billy’s attempts to master his powerful new skillset.
When it came to finding a suitable villain for Billy/Shazam to face off against, though, the filmmakers went in the opposite direction with the actually grown-up Dr Thaddeus Sivana – a character with similar powers to Billy but who knows how to use them. Judged unworthy of the magician’s abilities as a boy, the bitter Sivana has made it his lifelong mission to gain the power that he was denied – and he’s finally granted it thanks to the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins.
To play Sivana, director David F Sandberg needed someone who could be deadly serious – even when surrounded by silliness – and bring a decent amount of menace to the role, in order to relay just how out of his depth the fledgling hero is. Enter Mark Strong, a British actor who’s no stranger to playing baddies – or starring in comic-book movies, for that matter.
“It was really important to balance out the comedy by going the other way,” Strong tells Den Of Geek when we ask him about his performance, which offers no concessions given that he’s essentially going toe-to-toe with a 14-year-old. “He has to be genuinely scary and there has to be a real sense of jeopardy. Otherwise, what’s the point? There’s no danger. And as much as we fall in love with Billy and all the other kids, if you don’t really feel they’re being threatened by somebody who is a worthy nemesis, then that good-versus-evil thing isn’t strong enough. I almost wanted to make him even more scary knowing that it was going to be a comedy.”
Nowhere is this balancing act more apparent than in one of the film’s funniest scenes, in which Sivana delivers a classical villain’s speech while up in the air…and ever so slightly out of Shazam’s earshot.
“I thought that scene was a quiet bit of genius,” Strong laughs. “I absolutely loved doing that scene, partly because, as an actor, I was playing a sort of Shakespearean, fruity old bad guy in the way that he walked and talked and spoke, and that scene encapsulates that moment. He has this classic, old-school ‘I’m gonna rip your heart out and feed it to my dogs’ kind of speech while you’ve got this 14-year-old kid a little bit too far away going, ‘I can’t hear you!’ I just thought it was genius because it pulls the rug out from under him.”
Shazam! certainly isn’t Strong’s first rodeo, comic-book movie-wise. He played the ruthless mobster Frank D’Amico in Matthew Vaughn’s big-screen adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s Kick-Ass and starred opposite Ryan Reynolds as Sinestro in DC’s poorly received Green Lantern. But, the actor says, Shazam! demanded a “more physical” approach.
“I mean, I had fight sequences as Sinestro and Frank D’Amico was pretty nasty, but this involved a lot of flying and fighting and being very physical,” he recalls. “I loved it. But it did mean I spent many many days hanging upside down halfway up a blue room clinging onto to Zack [Levi] and trying to punch him in the face for quite a long time. So it was very demanding, but also finding the right tone – to allow it to be believable in a world where we’re having so much fun with the other side of the story – meant I had to work it out intellectually as well as being capable of doing the physical side of things.”
Finding the right tone, Strong says, was something that the whole cast and crew strived for. In many ways, Shazam! is probably one of the most out-there and fantastical superhero movies of recent years but, perhaps because of that, it also pays a lot of attention to making its characters relatable – including its big bad.
“It’s really important to try and find something new in all of these films, because there’s a lot of them and there’s going to be a lot more of them,” he says. “It seems to me that, with these big-screen spectacles, the technology has caught up with the vision, so superhero movies are going to be the order of the day. So I think it’s really important that you try and do as much with them as you can. If it’s just good-versus-evil, that’s not going to pass muster.
“This film has a heart to it – there is a family theme at its core. It’s about two young boys who are both given the chance to make a decision in life. It’s ironic that the guy who comes from a so-called intact family chooses the dark side, and the one who has been deserted chooses the good side. So if nothing else, there’s a little subtext there. I think that’s what makes it more of a complete film than just an excuse to get colorful characters smashing each other over the head.”
Shazam! is out in UK cinemas from 5 April.