Read This Before You See Shazam!

Close your eyes (metaphorically, that is — please keep reading) and imagine, for a moment, the prototypical superhero: square-jawed, dark hair, lots of primary colors and an instantly recognizable emblem on his chest. You know him. Kids love him. Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a sweet psych out to anyone who didn't read the title at the top of the page!

Yes, at a glance, Shazam has more than a few characteristics in common with Superman — so many that Detective Comics successfully sued his original publishers, Fawcett Comics, in the 1950s and wound up taking control of the character once commonly known as Captain Marvel. And that's the story of how DC wound up with two outside-underwear-wearing, super-strong, cape-clad vigilantes.

So what separates Shazam from the Man of Steel? Who is he? What makes him unique? And why, in an era when superhero movies come out with ever-increasing frequency, did it take so long to bring him to the big screen? Let's take a look at The World's Mightiest Mortal with a roundup of all the stuff you need to know before you see Shazam!

Billy Batson

A secret identity is the crux of nearly every superhero. Some, like Spider-Man, have them to protect their loved ones. Others have them because when they take off their tights, they magically transform into a little boy. Like, literally a child. Comics can be weird.

Unbeknownst to the DC Universe at large, Shazam is actually Billy Batson, a homeless orphan/foster child/respected child journalist, depending on which iteration of the character you're reading. (In the movie, he's played by Asher Angel, best known for his supporting role as Jonah Beck in the first three seasons of the Disney Channel's series Andi Mack.) After a fated brush with mystical forces (more on that later), Billy gains the ability to transform into "The World's Mightiest Mortal," a hulking behemoth of masculinity.

Decades before Stan Lee rocked the comic book landscape with the idea that kids would relate better to superheroes who weren't three times their age, Billy Batson became the first mainstream child chief protagonist on the comic book scene. That might have been part of the reason that his stories sold better than any other character's in the 1940s, at one point moving over 2 million copies. And it makes sense. What kid doesn't want to turn into an adult by saying a magic word?


Shazam! The World's Mightiest Mortal. The Big Red Cheese. Although he's been known by a handful of different names over the years, Shazam remains one of DC's most iconic characters.

When the mystical transformation takes place, Billy Batson becomes Shazam, played in the movie by Zachary Levi of Chuck fame. What that means varies depending on the writer. While he always turns into a pile of altruistic super muscle with an A+ jawline, Shazam himself has been a number of different things. Sometimes, like in the movie, he retains Billy's childlike mind in an adult, superpowered body. In other iterations, he's a completely separate entity, reliant on Billy to summon him, magically changing places with the kid. This is the case in Frank Miller's singularly grim take during The Dark Knight Strikes Again, when the hero is caught under a collapsing building and states that Batson died a while back before calling down the magic lightning that transforms him and disappearing into the ether.

As rocking as Shazam might be, he's not without his weaknesses. If the movie sticks to the comics, he should look out for his personal Kryptonites: electrical shocks, magic, accidentally saying his own name like a 'roided out Rumpelstiltskin, and from time to time, getting nervous around girls. Yeah, seriously.


Plenty of superheroes have too many powers to keep track of. Superman has been around so long and had so many writers that he's completely forgotten that he can make tiny replicas of himself and shoot them out of his fingers. Shazam managed to escape this embarrassing predicament by turning his name into a mnemonic device.

The magic word that Billy Batson shouts to turn into a superhero is an acrostic listing the names of the mythological characters from whom he gets his powers. S stands for the wisdom of Solomon, H for the strength of Hercules. The two A's are for Achilles and Atlas, from whom he gets his courage and stamina, respectively. The Z is for the power of Zeus, re: all sorts of nebulous lightning skills, and finally M for Mercury, who gives him his fantastic speed.

No word on where his other powers came from. You'd think it'd be easy to toss in, like, Job for maturity and Casper for flight, but then again, "Shazamjc" doesn't quite roll off the tongue as easily.

Shazam (the wizard)

Luke had an Obi-Wan, Harry had a Dumbledore, and Shazam has... Shazam. Shazam's mentor is also called Shazam. Yeah, it's always awkward working with someone who has the same name as you, but wizardly superhero exploits are sort of a specialized field; you have to play the cards you're dealt.

Billy receives the power to turn into Shazam from an ancient wizard, helpfully named Shazam. (No two ways about it, you're probably going to hear the word "shazam" an awful lot in this movie.) Shazam the wizard is an ancient and mystical being who guards the world from his magical cave, but you know how it goes — a couple thousand years on the job and you start feeling ready to clock out. In the comics, the wizard summons Billy to be his new champion, imbuing him with the aforementioned abilities because Batson is a generally decent dude.

What happens next differs from one telling to another. Sometimes the wizard dies of extreme old age. In the original story, he gets immediately and permanently squashed by a rock. But you can't keep a good Obi-Wan down, and he always tends to come back, ghostly and wise, to guide Billy on his path to heroism. In the movie, he'll be played by Djimon Hounsou, who eagle-eyed viewers will notice has already showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy and Aquaman.

The Rock of Eternity

Being a superhero is a solitary job. That's why it's so important to have a Batcave or a Fortress of Solitude to go to so you can, you know, by yourself some more.

Shazam's secret hideout has traditionally been the place where everything started for him: the Rock of Eternity. Like so much of Shazam's story, it's changed over the years with different writers, editors, and artistic interpretations, but generally, the facts are these: it's a magic lair, it's distinctly rocky, and it has a rad throne.

In the Golden Age Fawcett comics and even into the DC years, the Rock of Eternity sits in an otherworldly realm outside of space and time, although it would later be combined with the cave that the wizard Shazam was in when he summoned Billy Batson to inherit his objectively awesome destiny. It's generally only accessible through supernatural means, and is used as a housing facility for magically imprisoned enemies of the Shazam company of heroes, such as Black Adam and the Seven Deadly Sins. But we'll get to them.

Freddy Freeman

You've got to have friends, and Billy Batson has had Freddy since it was culturally relevant to have a supervillain named Captain Nazi. Well, since the first time it was.

Freddy Freeman is Billy's right hand man, confidant, and as a comic book character with an alliterative name, pretty much locked in to getting powers at some point. When he was introduced in 1941, Freddy was another down on his luck orphaned kid like Billy, with the added impediment of needing a crutch to walk. In the Golden Age comics, Freddy's leg and spine were casualties of a fight between Captain Marvel and Captain Nazi. Captain Marvel, feeling two heaping scoops of superheroic guilt, shared his powers with Freddy, giving him the power to transform into the just slightly condescendingly named Captain Marvel Junior.

The New 52 reboot of the character was more rascally. A pickpocket with just a hint of jerk, he's one of Billy's foster siblings. The two become close, and Freddy eventually gets a superpowered adult persona of his own, calling himself King Shazam and totally not overcompensating for the last 70 retconned years of going by "Junior." He's played in Shazam! by Jack Dylan Glazer, familiar to many viewers through his appearance as Eddie in 2017's It.

Doctor Sivana

If almost definitely being the visual inspiration for Doctor Farnsworth doesn't automatically make you a top shelf supervillain, we don't want to live on this planet anymore.

Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana has been the conniving arch-nemesis to Shazam since day one. A moral and physical antithesis to the hero, he's a small, stooped mad scientist, eyes perpetually obscured behind thick round glasses. He sneers. He jeers. He brings good guys to tears. His frequent early appearances were almost always accompanied by a new contraption designed to foil his nemesis, who he delighted in calling the Big Red Cheese. (It was a different time. Insults were still a developing art form.)

Like most comic book villains, Sivana took a darker turn in modern stories. His slick new rebooted self is more tragic in origin: After losing his family, he tries everything from science to magic to try to bring them back. A mystical accident grants him a magic-sensing eye, the use of which slowly decays his body.

Mark Strong, who plays Sivana in Shazam!, already has a superhero movie pedigree: he appeared in Kick-Ass and played Sinestro in DC's kinda regrettable Green Lantern.

The Seven Deadly Sins

The first time Billy Batson was summoned to the wizard Shazam, the old magician had some... unsettling furniture. Aside from the massive throne and the rock-heavy motif, there was a difficult-to-ignore collection of giant statues depicting caricature representations of man's worst vices.

Lo and behold, they weren't just statues. They were stone prisons built to contain the demonic personas of each of the Seven Deadly Sins. Originally referred to as the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man, they included Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Laziness, Selfishness, and Injustice. Once the comics code lightened up a little, they swapped the "Enemies of Man" from their name with "Sins" and switched out Selfishness and Injustice for Gluttony and Lust. The seven have escaped from their prisons on several occasions, always with the intention of wreaking havoc and general antagonistic no-goodnik behavior.

Not much is known about how the Seven Deadly Sins will be represented in Shazam!, but it's been confirmed by the director that they'll appear in the picture.

Black Adam

If Doctor Sivana is Shazam's Lex Luthor, Black Adam is his General Zod. And now, an explanation of that analogy for people who understand sports.

The Shazam from Shazam! wasn't always Shazam the wizard's chief Shazam. His previous Shazam was a man named Adam, sometimes from Egypt, sometimes from the fictional nation of Kandaq, but always from several thousand years ago. The wizard granted Adam powers similar to the ones he'd later give Billy Batson, thinking that Adam was pure of heart. Sadly, power corrupts, and super power corrupts superbly. Adam became Black Adam, a supervillain overlord on his bad days and a giant jerk of an antihero on the good ones.

There haven't been any official announcements with regard to Shazam!, but Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has been signed on to play Black Adam for years. Projects have lived and died in development hell. Could we see him in this movie? You should really know better than to leave before the credits finish if you want to find out. Maybe.

Billy's foster family

When DC relaunched their titles with 2011's New 52, all of their flagship characters got a modern reimagining. Superman got a little crankier, Batman's timeline got more convoluted, and somebody noticed that a prepubescent homeless orphan radio reporter wasn't a character that most 21st century audiences could relate to.

That's how Billy Batson got a family. During his reboot in Justice League, he was taken in by Victor and Rosa Vasquez, foster parents who had grown up in the system. Along for the ride were Billy's new foster siblings, Freddy Freeman, Darla Dudley, Eugene Choi, Mary Bromfield, and Pedro Pena. During Shazam's climactic fight with Black Adam, he learned that he could share his abilities with his family and transformed all of his brothers and sisters into lightning-cracklin' new superpowered versions of themselves.

In the movie, Victor and Rosa will be played by Cooper Andrews (Jerry from The Walking Dead) and Marta Milans (No Tomorrow). Ian Chen (Fresh Off The Boat) Faith Herman (This Is Us) Jovan Armand (The Middle) and Grace Fulton (Annabelle: Creation) round off the Shazam siblings. Will we see them power up? All signs point to "they're shooting for a franchise with this movie, so probably."

The original Marvel family

When a comic book adaptation hits the screen, you never know how far into the grab bag of obscure characters the studio is going to dig. For receipts, remember that time when Jessica Jones dusted off the Whizzer. That said, there isn't a huge chance that Shazam! is planning to utilize some of the comic's more puzzling cast, but in case they do, it's important to be prepared.

If you're a fan of old superhero stories from around the mid 20th century, you know that companies got real weird about slapping costumes on just about anybody and making them part of a team, and Captain Marvel was no exception. Things started out innocuously enough. There was Captain Marvel Jr., as mentioned, and also Mary Marvel, Billy's sister.

Then you had Uncle Marvel. Superpowers? None to speak of. He was just a chunky old dude who dressed up in tights and hung out with a group of children. It was a different time. He had an adopted niece, Freckles, who would cosplay with him sometimes.

For extra strength weirdness, look no further than honorary Marvel Family member Tawky Tawny. When he was introduced, Tawky Tawny's origin story was so old hat as to border on boring, but here goes: he was a literal tiger who learned how to talk and wear clothes and walk on his hind legs because he wanted to be like people. That's... That's it. He was grrrrrrreat.

The odds that the Golden Age characters are going to pop up might be slim, but you never know. Keep an eye out for big cats.

Captain Marvel

If saying your own name to transform into an unkillable physical ideal seems a little self-centered even for a superhero, take a little comfort in the fact that Shazam didn't start out that way. For the full push-your-glasses-up-your-nose nerdy explanation, let's go back to the beginning.

When he was introduced in 1939, Shazam went by a different name: Captain Marvel. Yes, for those keeping score, Shazam! is technically the second Captain Marvel movie of 2019. Here's where things get loopy.

See, when Fawcett Comics put out their story about Captain Marvel (their Captain Marvel, the Shazam one), DC noticed a number of similarities: he was a big dark-haired dude with strength, speed, and a cape. His costume had a familiar design to it. He was even throwing a car on the cover of his first issue, something Superman had sort of put his stamp on a year earlier. DC sued for copyright infringement — a messy dispute that ended with Fawcett out of business, and Captain Marvel (the big red lightning one) went out of print for roughly two decades.

By the time DC got around to putting out new stories about the character, rival company Marvel had licensed his now-lapsed name. DC would wind up changing the character's name to Shazam, and Marvel would just keep making more and more heroes called Captain Marvel, presumably while Stan Lee cackled maniacally and counted his money.