There’s a positive way to look at the fact that the new DC Universe superhero movie Shazam! is set in Philadelphia but filmed (mostly) in Toronto — you know your city has truly arrived when Hollywood is using other cities as a body double.
Another benefit — people will think our public transportation system is awesome. A Shazam! chase scene purportedly set on the Market-Frankford line is remarkable for the glistening white-tile stations and spacious trains full of people so polite they can only be Canadian.
But there is authentic Philly footage in the movie. Star Zachary Levi, who plays the title character, flew in for a day in December to shoot some legitimate local stuff. The filmmakers, he said, wanted to anchor the Shazam! characters with a location that was indelibly Philadelphia.
The Rocky steps, of course.
“That was my first time in Philadelphia, and, wow. What a feeling to be standing on those steps. What a sight! Of course, that view is so iconic. Like everybody else, I grew up on the Rocky movies, and the stairs are so famous. It was really cool to be there in living color, looking straight down the street at William Penn,” Levi said. (Speaking of William Penn, his statue makes quite a cameo in Shazam!, which uses CGI to play around with certain local landmarks, like the LOVE sculpture.)
Hollywood has been trying for nearly 20 years to make a big-screen version of DC’s Shazam!, about a orphan/foster-home teen named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who transforms into a powerful superhero (Levi) when he says, "Shazam.”
In a way, the delays worked in Philadelphia’s favor. When the character was reinvented in 2012 (believe it or not, in the ’30s, he was known as Captain Marvel), he was given a Philadelphia address. And when the movie was finally greenlit two years ago, Philadelphia was retained as the ostensible setting, even if most of the shooting was done in Toronto.
So Shazam! is a tale of two cities, and also a tale of two actors inhabiting the same role. Levi’s challenge is to project the aura of an apparently adult superhero while playing a teen boy grappling with his new grown-up body and new powers.
“I didn’t really go and watch the canon of body-switching movies, but in a way I didn’t have to. I’ve seen Big so many times that I sort of know it by heart, and it’s just ingrained in me. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I’ve always wanted to play a role like that," Levi said.
“What I appreciated about what Tom Hanks brought to that role," he said, "is how he gets you to go on that journey because he’s making it seem as real as possible — the idea of a kid who’s suddenly in this other body.”
Levi said he and Shazam! director David Sandberg were thinking not only of Big but of movies like it in terms of spirit. Levi believes he got the part when he met with Sandberg and found they were on exactly the same page about the tone they envisioned for Shazam! — funny, with just a bit of darkness around the edges. It’s something of a shift for DC, which is known for darker takes on superhero fare, like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Shazam! is aimed almost squarely at children. DC has surely seen Marvel — not to mention its own lighter fare, like Aquaman and Wonder Woman — make billions of dollars on movies that are more family-friendly.
“Hilarious and creepy. Like the Amblin movies we loved growing up. Goonies and Gremlins. We certainly tried to capture that,” said Levi, whose scenes are mostly on the hilarious side. Creepiness is allocated to Mark Strong, the British actor who plays the movie’s villain, and who has been a reliable heavy in movies like Kick Ass and Robin Hood.
“My job basically was to have fun. And then you have a genius like Mark Strong. When the movie needs to be a little darker he’s able to handle that.”
Shazam! is tracking to open pretty big — in the $50 million range. It’s an origin story that leaves plenty of room for sequels, and though Levi has heard nothing official, he said the studio will have to strike while that iron is hot, and while the teen cast is still teen.
“They’re not going to look like they look for very long. They’re growing like weeds,” Levi said.
Levi also doesn’t know whether he’ll be invited back for another season of the streaming series The Marvelous Miss Maisel. He played a love interest for the title character, and the most recent season ended with their relationship in limbo.
“I can neither confirm nor deny, but I can confirm that I honestly don’t know,” he said.
What he does know is that his acting options look pretty good, and after plugging away at this craft for 20 years, he’s suddenly reached a pinch-myself plateau of good fortune.