Sitting down in a back room at a Dave & Buster’s restaurant in Hollywood, actors Zachary Levi, Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer are amped-up — and not just because they’ve been playing Tomb Raider and Space Invaders arcade games for 20 minutes.
In recent days, the three have been watching early reviews of their new superhero film “Shazam!,” opening April 5, trickle in. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, with many praising the film for bringing much-needed levity to a DC Comics cinematic universe that has often been knocked for being overly dark and gloomy.
“Things are leaning very, very well,” Levi says. “I mean, I’ve seen a couple of times now people saying it’s the best superhero movie they’ve ever seen. Now I’m not saying I agree with that. But when people are saying that, you’re like, ‘Damn, maybe we did make something that special.’ ”
Equal parts wish-fulfillment comedy, heartstring-tugging family drama and high-stakes action movie, “Shazam!” tells the story of Billy Batson, a troubled 14-year-old foster kid who is granted otherworldly powers by a wizard and, upon saying the word “Shazam,” can transform himself into a grown-up superhero. Think “Big” meets Superman, with a dash of the 1980s TV series “The Greatest American Hero,” and you’re in the ballpark.
Angel, who stars on the Disney Channel series “Andi Mack,” plays the teenage Batson, while Levi, who shot to fame on the cult NBC show “Chuck” (available for streaming via Amazon Prime) and recently joined the cast of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” plays his muscle-bound, spandex-clad incarnation.
Grazer, who had a breakout role in the 2017 horror hit “It,” plays trusty sidekick Freddy Freeman, a fellow foster kid and die-hard comic book fan who helps Batson figure out how to use his newfound powers to battle a power-hungry businessman-turned-supervillain named Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong).
“Shazam!” marks the modern big-screen debut of the character who was created as Captain Marvel in 1939 and, for much of the 1940s, was the top-selling comic book superhero. Decades later, the character — whom Gen-Xers may remember from a short-lived 1970s live-action TV series — was renamed Shazam after Marvel Comics introduced its own female Captain Marvel character. (In a coincidence no one could have foreseen, that Captain Marvel has been burning up the box office in her own big-screen vehicle, starring Brie Larson).
If you make a Superman movie, everyone has their favorite Superman and their ideas of what it should be, whereas here it felt more open and relaxed.
Swedish director David F. Sandberg, previously best-known for making the hit horror films “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation,” was only vaguely aware of the character’s long history when Warner Bros. executives pitched him the idea. But in his mind, the fact that Shazam may be similarly unfamiliar to many moviegoers opened up possibilities that might not have been available with a more universally known character.
“If you make a Superman movie, everyone has their favorite Superman and their ideas of what it should be, whereas here it felt more open and relaxed,” Sandberg says. “I took a lot of inspiration from movies that I grew up with, like ‘Gremlins’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘The Goonies.’ Those movies have a little bit of everything. They have a fun sense of adventure and joy, but they also have real stakes and real danger.”
The Times spoke with Levi, 38, Angel, 16, and Grazer, 15, about bringing Shazam to life in all his goofy glory, navigating the pressures of fandom and the importance of staying young at heart.
It’s fun. It’s not intense. Shazam is not dreading having to save the world. He’s super stoked about being granted these powers.
How familiar were you all with the character of Shazam before this came along?
Levi: As a comic book kid, I was more of a Marvel, X-Men guy, but I was always kind of aware of the DC universe and of Shazam as the archetype of the little boy who could say the magic word and become the superhero. But in the process of auditioning for the role, I really dug deep into it — and the deeper I dug, the more I fell in love with the whole premise.
Angel: After I got the job, I watched the [1970s] TV series; I found it on YouTube. And I went to the comic book store and read the “New 52” comics [that relaunched Shazam in 2011]. But for me, it was really reading the script and getting my character breakdown; that helped me a lot.
Grazer: It’s different for me, I think, because my character needs to know everything about the DC universe in general. So I did a pretty deep dive into the lore, and I found out some really cool things about the character and the story, like that I was Elvis’ favorite superhero.
Levi: I told you that! Growing up, Elvis loved Captain Marvel and he wanted to be Freddy’s original incarnation of Captain Marvel Jr. His cape, the famous TCB thunderbolt — Elvis got it all from Captain Marvel. Hunka hunka burnin’ love, man.
The rap on some of the previous DC films is that they’ve been overly grim. But from the very first teaser trailer for “Shazam!” the clear message was that this movie doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Grazer: It’s a really unique story that hasn’t really been touched on in the majority of superhero movies that have been made. It’s fun. It’s not intense. Shazam is not dreading having to save the world. He’s super stoked about being granted these powers.
Levi: Yeah, this is definitely not grim. There are moments that are creepy; when your director is an awesome horror director, you can only hope he’s going to put some of those things in there. But that balances the levity and the heart.
Other superhero franchises might have to artificially inject more family [themes] or more humor, but we didn’t have to do that at all. If the story is about a 14-year-old in a man’s body, that’s naturally going to have heart and be funny. It’s all within the DNA of the project.
We’re DC’s “Deadpool” in a way. In the same way that “Deadpool” was in this beautiful spot where it was in that [X-Men] universe but still separate enough to be aware of it and comment on it — we kind of get that opportunity in the DC world.
The name Shazam and the suit he wears are inherently a little goofy, and the movie embraces that and has fun with it. At times, it’s on the edge of ridiculous. Was it always clear what the tone would be?
Levi: That’ll be the headline on this article: “On the Edge of Ridiculous: My Journey Through ‘Shazam!’ ” [laughs]
Yeah, I always felt like the tone was very clear because it was on the page. I think that’s perhaps why people find it so delightful. It’s trying to bring the kind of escapism that is the reason we go to the movies. I mean, every time I watch “Singin’ in the Rain,” I feel like a million bucks at the end. Debbie Reynolds dancing over couches? Come on, life is worth living, guys! That’s the kind of elation I feel like perhaps a movie like this can bring to people.
Zac, you took a spin through the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thor’s friend Fandral in “Thor: The Dark World” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Had you been looking for a big superhero character to play for a long time?
Levi: I think most people are. I don’t think it’s so much the act of looking as you’re waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for an opportunity.
I was super stoked that they gave me that opportunity [to play Fandral]. It was cool that [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige and those cats were like, “Yeah, we’ll trust you with this character who speaks with an English accent and has blonde hair and is a swashbuckling lothario.” But ultimately, in my opinion, I don’t think the Warriors Three were used anywhere close to what their capability was.
At the moment, I felt a little salty. I was like, “Crap, I played my chip, I got a spin on the wheel, I made it on the board and it wasn’t everything I hoped it would be, and then Cate Blanchett killed me” — which is an honor, by the way. But had I not been killed in the Marvel universe, I would not have now been reborn in the DC universe. So for all of it, I go, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
We just have to open this movie and hope that it does well enough for Warner Bros. and DC to say, ‘Good job, kid. Let’s go make a sequel.’
Zac and Asher, since you’re playing the same character in different physical incarnations, how did you make sure your performances synced up? Do you feel like your inner 14-year-old is easily accessible, Zac?
Angel: It’s not accessible; it’s just there. Zac is like a man-baby.
Levi: I’ve resisted growing up a lot in my life — in I think good ways. I mean, I genuinely am trying to always mature in the ways we ought to. But the older you get, the more you need reminders to have fun. These guys were incredible reminders of what it meant to be silly again. They’re just like, “Right here, right now, let’s have fun.” They don’t have the responsibilities of life weighing down on their shoulders.
Grazer: [deadpan] I’m actually a 60-year-old man. I turn 61 tomorrow.
Levi: In many ways that’s actually true. He likes the Rolling Stones, he plays the jew’s-harp — it’s incredible.
Asher, this is really your first significant movie role, and it’s one of the leads in a major superhero movie. What does that feel like?
Angel: It’s mind-boggling and surreal. I don’t know if it’ll ever sink in. I’m more worried about what’s after this. I want to keep working. I want to get that next audition. Hopefully there’s a sequel. But, you know, you dream about these things from when you’re little, and I’m very grateful.
Jack, your first big movie was “It,” which was a huge hit. Did having that success under your belt give you more confidence going into something like this?
Grazer: No, because I don’t want to jinx things. I felt like it was a big responsibility. There’s a huge fandom around a story like this, and it’s bad if you let them down because then you’re tanked. Now it’s up to me to be a good Freddy Freeman and live up to the tale of Shazam and what people want to see. I also don’t want to be just what they’ve already seen in the comics; I also want to add a rendition of myself.
The role of the superhero’s sidekick can be pretty thankless sometimes, but Freddy is more than a sidekick; he’s really a key part of the movie.
Grazer: I agree. I feel like “sidekick” is degrading. Think of me as Yoda. Without me, Shazam would be lost. He doesn’t know how to fly. He doesn’t know how to use any of his powers. He doesn’t even know how to pee in his suit. And because I’m this aficionado of superheroes, I really become that guide to helping him harness his skill. I’m more of a sensei or a miniature manager.
Levi: A bit of a “momager” if you ask me.
Grazer: You’re welcome.
Now that Shazam is part of the DC movie universe, do you have any sense of where he might go from here? There has already been talk of Dwayne Johnson playing the villain Black Adam in a possible “Shazam!” sequel.
Levi: That would be pretty mind-blowing. Basically everything I hear is online: Some website says, “The Rock says he’s going to be doing the Black Adam movie sooner rather than later” — and you’re like, “What does that mean?” But it would be amazing.
I don’t know what the future holds. The OCD part of me would love to have all that information and know where things might go. But right now we just have to open this movie and hope that it does well enough for Warner Bros. and DC to say, “Good job, kid. Let’s go make a sequel.” And if that could then tie into other DC things, that would be super cool.
You never know — in the comics, Shazam has even fought Superman.
Grazer: And he has beaten him.
Angel: Come on, he’s magic!