'Shazam!' and the Rise of the TV Star Superhero

DC has found success with Zachary Levi, just as Marvel made it work with 'Guardians of the Galaxy' actor Chris Pratt.
Warner Bros./Photofest
Zachary Levi; Chris Pratt

Though it’s fair to say that many superhero films, whether they’re from Marvel, DC or another studio, adhere to similar formulas, they often end up going down the unexpected route when they start casting. No one imagined that Robert Downey Jr. would make the best version of billionaire playboy/industrialist Tony Stark, but his performance as Iron Man has set the template for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That sense of the unexpected has fueled a lot of casting choices, including that of the new film in the DC universe, Shazam!, in which Zachary Levi appears as the powerful superhero version of the teenage lead character.

Levi’s no stranger to the world of geek culture, to be sure; his best-known live-action role to date was as the title character on the NBC spy comedy Chuck, which aired between 2007 and 2012. Though the show never had massive ratings, it quickly gained a Comic-Con-friendly audience for its '80s nostalgia, goofy comedy, and winning romance. And Levi’s other major role is that of Flynn Rider, the charming scoundrel who falls in love with Rapunzel in Disney’s 2010 adaptation of the iconic fairy tale Tangled. But those roles didn’t automatically presume that Levi could pull off the derring-do of superhero work in Shazam!.

In the new film, rough-and-tumble teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) lands in yet another Philadelphia foster home, this one with a few other foster children including the comic-book-obsessed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). One day, after helping the physically disabled Freddy evade some bullies, Billy runs off to avoid getting beaten up and is shocked to be transported to the darkened lair of an elderly wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who transfers his immense superpowers to Billy, as long as he says just one magic word: Shazam. Doing so turns Billy into a well-built superhero with a lightning bolt-topped suit, and that’s where Levi comes in.

Whatever else is true, Shazam! plays to the strengths that Levi has exhibited in his past work on the small and big screens. While he’s physically an adult, Billy-as-Shazam is still very much a teenager and has the boisterous, hyped-up enthusiasm of a kid. Though neither Chuck nor Flynn Rider are kids per se, they feel kid-like at heart. Levi’s ebullient charm is what makes these characters so much fun, in the same way that when he shows up in Shazam!, he exudes a sense of giddiness at the fact that he’s super-strong, able to withstand bullets, super-fast and more.

While a good chunk of the Henry Gayden screenplay follows some of the similar tropes and cliches of superhero films, Levi’s performance calls to mind that of Tom Hanks in Big, walking a fine line so that the grown-up version of Billy is always charming instead of a little creepy, even when he indulges in more adult fare. (The closest that Shazam! gets to engaging in more mature themes is when the grown-up version of Billy goes into a strip club, though we never see him inside.) Mostly, Levi gets to excel at being so excited at the various powers that Billy has when he’s donning the Shazam suit. From encouraging convenience-store robbers to shoot more bullets at him to prove his ability to withstand them (right before he tosses the robbers through a window) to cheering himself after rescuing a busload of innocent passengers, Billy is a welcome throwback to the superheroes who thrill at their abilities.

While movie studios making superhero films do tend to go to surprising choices for casting, looking to the world of TV has largely worked out for them in the past. DC's most recent film, Aquaman, was headlined by Jason Momoa, who first became a prominent star thanks to his gruff work on the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones as the taciturn leader Khal Drogo. Marvel has gone to the well of TV a few times, bringing Benedict Cumberbatch from his role as Sherlock Holmes on the BBC revival to play Doctor Strange. Most famously, of course, their beloved Guardians of the Galaxy films are toplined by Chris Pratt, who was in the middle of playing lovable goofball Andy Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation at the time. (For Marvel, of course, working with folks from TV is how they operate — Anthony and Joe Russo, before becoming their go-to directors, had worked often on shows like Arrested Development and Community.)

Though it would be ideal if the stories that superhero films told were able to break the mold every single time, it’s at least encouraging that studios like Marvel and DC are trying to shake things up with who they choose to embody those heroes. There was a time when actors making the transition from TV to movies was the opposite of a safe bet, in part because the films those actors tried to use to become bigger stars were often quite bad. But within superhero films, actors making the leap from TV have so far had a very good success rate. Look no further than Levi, whose mix of good looks and goofy, enthusiastic charisma make Shazam! a far more charming and enjoyable film than might have been the case with the wrong actor in the title role.