The Comics Behind First 'Shazam!' Trailer

Perhaps the biggest surprise to emerge out of San Diego Comic-Con's Hall H on Saturday was the release of the trailer for Shazam! The film’s production wrapped in May, and while it was expected that Comic-Con attendees would get a first look, Warner Bros. surprised fans by also releasing the trailer online.

David Sandberg’s film is based on the comic property Captain Marvel, whose name eventually became Shazam after the rise in popularity of a version of Marvel’s character of the same name, who will also get her big-screen debut next year. Like the comics on which it is based, Shazam! offers a lighter touch to DC’s growing cinematic universe Worlds of DC. Described as a superhero version of Big (1988), the trailer’s comedic tone and star Zachary Levi’s presentation played well to the crowd. In what looks to be a film that balances heart, humor and stakes, Shazam! may end up being one of next year’s most pleasant surprises.

The trailer begins by introducing us to 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who, despite being a little rough around the edges, is naturally good at heart. The depiction of Billy Batson in the comics hasn’t always been consistent, and when the character debuted in Whiz Comics No. 2 in 1939, he was a bit more wide-eyed and innocent. The new film updates him and his supporting cast to reflect the current era, despite the inherent golden-age trappings associated with Shazam.

Like James Wan’s Aquaman, Shazam! will pull largely from comic book writer Geoff Johns' work on the characters. Johns wrote a Shazam backup miniseries in the pages of Justice League, running from 2012-2013. At this year’s DC Comics’ panel, Johns announced that he would be returning to write Shazam! in a new ongoing set to debut this November. One of the key concepts he introduced, and that we’ll see continued in the new comic series as well, is Billy’s foster siblings acquiring powers as well. While Billy’s best friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and sister Mary (Grace Fulton) became staples of the property in the early '40s as Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, modern comics have presented a larger and more diverse Shazam family. We may get a glimpse of Billy’s superpowered siblings by the film’s end to set up what will hopefully turn into a franchise.

Billy acquires his powers from the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who transfers his magical energies and title to the boy, allowing him to transform into an adult superhero by saying the magic word, "Shazam." Shazam is an acronym for the immortal elders consisting of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury — which makes us wonder if we’ll get a Wonder Woman reference given the connection to the gods. The creation of Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, Shazam, or Captain Marvel as he was known then, is one of the earliest superheroes, following the debut of Superman and Batman. Shazam’s popularity actually surpassed Superman in the '40s, with many kids identifying with the young protagonist who had the power to turn into an adult with the powers of Greek gods. Shazam wasn’t originally a DC Comics character, instead belonging to Fawcett Comics; the comics giant sued Fawcett for copyright infringement on the character Superman, leading to an end of his publication. In 1972, DC licensed the rights to the character, and by 1991 it had fully acquired the character and his supporting cast of Fawcett creations. In 2011, DC officially renamed Captain Marvel Shazam, which is still a minor point of contention among some fans.

Shazam’s original appearance was based off of actor Fred MacMurray, giving him a good-natured appearance that appealed to young readers. The character’s stories were often humorous and more cartoony than serious adventures of other costumed heroes. While the adventures of Superman and Batman were a little more grounded in the '40s, Captain Marvel’s adventures took on more fantastic and dream-like elements, including Billy Batson breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the reader — an aspect that Marvel’s Deadpool would later popularize in the '90s.

The tone of Captain Marvel’s publications eventually earned him the nickname The Big Cheese. While some may question the apparent lightness of Shazam! and see it as a drastic departure from the rest of DC’s films, the pic is honoring the source material that made the character so appealing and distinct from his costumed counterparts. Zachary Levi looks to bring that sense of earnestness and good-natured humor to the role of Shazam. Despite the character’s adult appearance, he retains the maturity of a 14-year old boy. Aided by Freddy Freeman, a massive superhero fan, Billy Batson will test the limits of his powers and try to navigate being a hero, a process that will take on an urgency with the arrival of a sinister presence.

Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is Shazam’s nemesis and most frequently appearing enemy in the comics, having also debuted along with Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics No. 2. Traditionally a mad scientist and skilled inventor driven to evil after his goals to help humanity were rejected by corporations more interested in money than people, Sivana also receives an update in Sandberg’s film. His appearance is based on Gary Frank’s design of the character in the aforementioned Johns series, replacing his formally diminutive stature, white lab-coat and opaque glasses. In the pic, Sivana was rejected by the wizard as a child, and denied the opportunity to become the champion Shazam, leading him to spend a lifetime using science to search for the magic he glimpsed as a child. In the Johns series, Sivana uncovers magic after awakening Shazam’s other nemesis, Black Adam. While Black Adam is said not to appear in this film, Dwayne Johnson has been cast as the magically powered dictator and is set to star in a movie of his own. Despite the fun and optimism that are an inherent part of Shazam, expect the film to deal with some heavy concepts about maturity, ownership and finding a balance between hero and diety.

While Shazam may no longer be America’s most-popular hero as he was in the '40s, his reemergence in comics and the upcoming film, just in time for the character's 80th anniversary, could open the doors to a much wider DC Universe, both tonally and conceptually. All we have to do is say the magic word.

Shazam! is set be released April 5, 2019.