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A beginner's guide to DC superhero movie Shazam!

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Even for casual movie fans, this year's Comic-Con was packed with eye-catching names. Godzilla, Venom, Aquaman, Shazam…

Hang on a minute! Who? Shazam? You heard right. Little known outside comic book fan circles, the new movie in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) could easily turn out to be its secret weapon in the battle against Marvel. But that Comic-Con trailer raised more questions than answers. Who is he? Where did that name come from? Will we see him alongside Batman and Superman?

So, for the uninitiated, here's what you need to know about the superhero with the magic moniker...

Who is Shazam?

He's the Earth's Mightiest Mortal, that's who. But he's also the alter-ego of young Billy Batson, an orphan given amazing powers by an ageing wizard. Whenever the boy utters the word "Shazam!" he transforms into a superhero with astounding abilities. But, while he appears to be an adult on the outside, he's still a boy underneath – with all that entails.

That name is no accident. He has the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. Put them all together and you get Shazam. It means Billy leads a double life. Sometimes he's a lonely orphan, living in a foster home and keeping his amazing abilities a secret, while on other days he battles the forces of evil. All in a day's work, really.


Haven't we seen him before?

Yes, but a long time ago and he went by another name: Captain Marvel. That was back in 1940, when he was a Superman lookalike, and it was only when DC Comics took over the publishing rights that things got complicated. At the same time, Marvel Comics were on the up and were publishing a very different character of their own called – yes, you've guessed it – Captain Marvel. Something had to give.

Years of legal wrangles and court cases later, Marvel held onto the name, DC re-christened their superhero and Shazam was born. Not that he lost that Superman look. The bulging muscles, the skin-tight suit, the cape, the ability to fly and that super strength all remained intact, although Shazam himself found his popularity on the wane, with his exploits finding more favour among comic book devotees. That could all change next spring when he arrives on the big screen.


What are his powers?

Shazam's powers don't just stop at strength, power, speed and all the rest of them. He's not just strong, he's super-strong. He's invulnerable, he can fly and he has a few other tricks up his super-sleeve, like the power to generate lightning and the genius to solve complex puzzles and codes in the blink of an eye.

An unstoppable force, then, unless his enemies can pull off the neat trick of getting him to change back into the more ordinary Billy Batson. He can also transfer his power to others, and word is that we'll see him doing that in the film. It'll likely be friends of Billy's, chiefly his new step-brother Freddy (played by IT's Jack Dylan Grazer) who'll be getting the benefit.


Who plays Shazam in the movie?   

It's a crucial piece of casting and the honour goes to Zachary Levi, best known for playing the title role of NBC's action comedy series Chuck (2007-2012). A nerd who became a spy after uploading a super computer into his brain, Chuck initially used the lethal combination of smarts and charm to get himself out of sticky situations but, after a couple of seasons, the writers upped the ante, adding combat skills to his repertoire. What better way to prepare for playing a superhero?

Levi's talent for comedy resulted in a screen test for the role of Star Lord in Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014). He may have lost out to Chris Pratt that time round but, after reprising his role as Fandral from Thor: The Dark World (2013) in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), he gets his turn to step into the spotlight and it bodes well for Shazam!

That's only half of the story. Young Billy Batson, the 14-year-old who transforms into Levi's superhero when he utters the magic word, is played by Disney Channel actor Asher Angel, something of a rising star in his own right.

Meanwhile, Shazam's arch-nemesis has always been Black Adam (more on him later) but in the movie he'll be facing down the terrifying Dr Thaddeus Sivana, a sorcerer in search of world domination, played by British actor Mark Strong. With a track record that includes Lord Blackwood in Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes (2009) and crime lord Frank D'Amico in Kick-Ass (2010) (we won't mention Sinestro in DC's much-maligned Green Lantern), he's well-equipped to play another big screen villain.

As for Black Adam, it sounds like we won't be seeing him. Dwayne Johnson was originally in the frame to play him – and that could still happen, but not in this movie. Word is he's attached to a stand-alone Black Adam movie.

Why should we be excited?

Gone are the darker moods of Batman and Superman. Shazam! promises something lighter, funnier and more family-friendly. Superman meets Big, if you like, especially as the official synopsis describes Shazam's journey thus "to test the limits of his abilities with the joyful recklessness of a child."

Walking the tightrope between a kids' flick and an adult movie means its appeal won't just be confined to an older audience. Billy's youth could actually get in the way of Shazam's abilities, giving the superhero his own unique set of problems – and more opportunities for fun and laughs. Whichever way you cut it, he's going to be a very different kind of DC superhero and, after being around for so many years, it's high time the character brought his own distinctive appeal to the big screen.

In fact, director David F. Sandberg, best known for horror hits like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, says the movie's wintry setting gives it a uniquely festive flavour. "It feels like a Christmas movie to me. It's about family, and finding your family, you have these orphans or foster kids... and Christmas is very much a family holiday, so it sort of ties it all together in that way," he told Comicbook.com at Comic-Con.

Levi says the movie takes its Yuletide inspiration from writer Geoff Johns' Shazam! retelling in New 52, essentially a comics initiative that rewrote the entirety of DC graphic novel mythology.

"That was a Christmas story in that issue, so I think that's gotta play something into it," Levi explains.


Is he part of the wider DC Universe?

If the latest reports are true, we won't be seeing Shazam keeping company with the Man Of Steel – not in this movie, anyway. But the film will still be very much part of the DCEU, as the trailer and other promotional materials include countless nods towards both Superman and Batman, among others.

Maybe, just maybe, DC has found a better way of linking its films together than clumsy superhero cameos. And, let's face it, it's probably only a matter of time until Shazam and Superman meet on the big screen...

Shazam is released in April 2019 so check out the trailer and tweet us your thoughts on the movie @Cineworld.

Freda Cooper is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.