Mark Strong has been a DC villain before. His portrayal of Sinestro remains the only positive footnote in Green Lantern‘s otherwise dismal place in DC movie history. Strong is back to terrorize another well-meaning metahuman, this time as Doctor Sivana in Shazam! and the actor has done his homework.
Batman News‘ sister site Superhero News and other outlets sat down with Strong on the set of Shazam! last year. He wasn’t shooting that day, but he admired and complimented the work of Asher Angel (Billy Batson) and Grace Fulton (Mary) as we all watched the actors perform a scene on monitors. It was clear throughout our conversation that Strong has a deep appreciation for his character, this film, and the entire genre of superhero-based movies.
Doctor Sivana is not as well-known as Sinestro, but Strong sees that as an opportunity to make the role his own. That’s not going to come at the expense of the source material, however, as Strong has indeed done the reading.
“I feel like because we’ve gone through a whole process of many superheroes now, we’re looking for the slightly more obscure ones or we’re discovering the slightly more obscure ones,” he said. “I was really surprised to find out that in 1940 when the original comic came out Sivana was in the second edition [Whiz Comics #2]. So, he is a proper old school villain and as nobody has done it before, I’m really excited at the idea that I get to invent my version of him.”
Doctor Sivana is Shazam’s (formerly Captain Marvel’s) greatest nemesis. This cinematic iteration will honor the character’s early beginnings, but draw more inspiration from contemporary comics.
“Well as you all know, this is the New 52 version in which he’s much more robust and much more powerful,” Strong explained. “Obviously, originally, he was a scientist and I think the story was he was thwarted and the world didn’t understand him… in fact, he originally he went to Venus and then came back. I don’t think my Sivana goes there necessarily. Nevertheless, he’s able to sort of channel that thing that all great supervillains do, which is a need to have complete power and basically rule everything. That seems to me to be a standard of good old-fashioned evil characters.”
Doctor Sivana is after the power bestowed upon 14-year-old Billy Batson by the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) at the Rock of Eternity. Billy says the titular magic word and immediately takes the form and powers of a superhero (Zachary Levi). Sivana has dedicated his life to obtaining this power, which is a good reason why he shouldn’t have it, and is confounded by the Wizard’s choice.
“He can’t understand that the Wizard has chosen this boy as his champion,” Strong said. “To him, it’s a source of total incomprehension why this boy should have been chosen over him. But, it just justifies him in his quest to unify the good force and the evil force and be in control of all of it.”
Shazam! will cover Sivana’s backstory to explain why he wants this power so badly. He will become aware that he’s actually up against a teenage kid, but that does not mean Sivana will pull any punches. “I don’t think it could ever be too dark,” Strong explained. “I had this discussion with [director] David [F. Sandberg] and Peter [Safran] the producer very early on and said I think Sivana should be like heat-seeking ballistic evil. The more frightening you make him, the more you feel that the kids are in jeopardy. I think if he ever steps back and takes his foot off the gas of being dark, it doesn’t serve the purpose of the story, which is he needs to be a terrifying nemesis.”
Strong’s darkness will provide balance in a movie that will have plenty of light-hearted, funny moments. This is still a movie about a kid with super powers. Sivana won’t completely escape the film’s sense of humor, but those moments will serve the story in showing just how badly Shazam is in over his head. The contrast in how Sivana and Billy react to power plays into the emotional arc of each character to show the audience who they really are.
“It’s interesting how they view what’s happening to them now that they’ve got the power,” said Strong. “For example, the Shazam suit is really an incarnation of a superhero suit as seen by a 13/14-year-old boy. That’s the idea. It’s a little bit garish, it’s a little bit bright but that’s how he imagines it. So consequently, again I had to think is that what he thinks is evil incarnate? So he’s chosen something long, sort of Nazi-like long leather coat with a fur collar and a pair of sort of dark sunglasses because I suppose as he gets that evil power, this is how he chooses to manifest himself in the way that he looks. So you’ve got a young boy with the enthusiasm for all the power that he’s given and you’ve got a cynical old guy with the opposite of that who’s chosen to take a darker path and really use that power for his own personal gain rather than to help other people.”
Strong has been a player in comic book movie space for some time. In addition to Green Lantern, he’s appeared in Kick-Ass and the Kingsman franchise. He’s effectively a regular and is excited to see the way the genre continues to evolve.
“When I started acting these big comic book movies didn’t really exist,” Strong said. “They were extremely rare if they did. So now that they’ve become the staple fare of cinema, and I think what happened is… because the technology has advanced so far, and I’m sure you’ve all heard this before, and because television is now having its golden age, so a lot of the writers of drama have moved from film to TV, which leaves the kind of cinema to take care of these big spectacles and it just so happens comic book movies are spectacles, especially with the advent of the technology that is available nowadays.
“So it’s a good thing because I think everything is informing everything else. Guardians of the Galaxy comes out that has a sense of humor that now infuses Thor: [Ragnarok] which gives that a bit sense of humor. Now we’ve moved into the world of Black Panther and now we’ve got a female superhero in Wonder Woman. It’s as if everything is pushing the genre onwards, and that I think can only be a good thing.”
It’s a very good thing that Strong continues to be part of moving the genre forward. Shazam! is fortunate to have him, even if it means trouble for poor Billy Batson. Good luck, kid.
For more coverage of our visit to the set of Shazam!, click here.