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‘Shazam!’ the magic word to fulfill Zachary Levi’s superhero dreams

"Shazam!" star Zachary Levi strikes a heroic pose during an interview at the Emporium Fulton Market. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

OK fine, so maybe this isn’t the first profile of Zachary Levi you’ve come across lately, what with the likable, media-friendly actor (“Chuck,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) making the rounds to promote “Shazam!” — so let’s start off with a couple of (we hope) unique anecdotes from my time with Levi during his recent visit to Chicago.

1. His air hockey game is strong.

2. His five-second impersonation of Brad Pitt at the end of “Seven” [“What’s in the box!”] is also strong.

What do either of these factoids have to do with the long-awaited, long-delayed, live-action feature film debut of a character who was Captain Marvel before Captain Marvel was Captain Marvel, was eventually renamed Shazam!, and could become a member of the Justice League in DC Extended Universe movies to follow?

Let’s start with the air hockey game.

“Shazam!” (opening Thursday) is the story of 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a goodhearted but cynical kid who has been bouncing from one foster home to another for most of his life, seems ordinary at best in every way and would seem to be the least likely candidate in the world to become a superhero — until a strange and miraculous series of events does just that.

All of a sudden, Billy is transformed into a tall and handsome and muscular man of about 35 who is clad in a ridiculous red-and-gold costume, has all kinds of superpowers, and eventually becomes known as …

Shazam!

Levi plays the title character, who looks like a grown-up, fully formed superhero, but is just a kid on the inside.

Which is why I suggested Levi meet me at the Emporium Fulton Market, one of those whole lotta fun/Peter Pan/craft beer/arcade game places, so we could get into the whole kid-in-superhero’s-body spirit by playing a little air hockey.

For those of you keeping score, Levi emerged victorious by one goal.

Fine. Two goals.

After the game, I sat down for a chat with the 38-year-old Levi, who is taller than you might expect and handsomer in person than you might expect, and in the kind of shape you’d expect of someone who has recently starred in a superhero movie — albeit a relatively light-hearted superhero movie.

“You have this 14-year-old-kid, and he’s a little rough around the edges” said Levi, “but he has a heart of gold … and boom!

“He becomes this superhero, but he’s still 14 years old inside, so the premise is basically ‘Big’ meets ‘Superman.’ ”

In the comic book world, Shazam has only been called Shazam since 2012. Before that, he was … Captain Marvel.

Not the Marvel Captain Marvel, a different Captain Marvel — the one seen on the 1970s Saturday morning TV show also called “Shazam!”

“This character [was] originally called Captain Marvel in a 1939 Fawcett comic as kind of a Superman ripoff of sorts,” said Levi. “DC Comics sued them … and wound up owning this character of Captain Marvel, but then the trademark lapsed and Marvel came along and created THEIR Captain Marvel, so eventually [this character] became Shazam.”

Geez. Every superhero has SUCH a complicated back story.

In “Shazam!,” the title superhero demonstrates his powers to young comic-book fan Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). | Warner Bros.
In “Shazam!,” the title superhero demonstrates his powers to young comic-book fan Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). | Warner Bros.

Levi had a taste of the big-budget superhero universe by playing Fandral in a couple of “Thor” movies, but he was starting to feel his dream of playing the lead in a comic book film was fading fast until “Shazam!” came along.

“[My character] in ‘Thor,’ it was very very cool to be accepted into that world, playing this kind of Errol Flynn, ladies’ man Lothario,” said Levi. “But there wasn’t that much to do. …

“To be honest, I thought that might have been my superhero card, that was it, which was kind of a bummer because I really wanted to do more. That I’m 38 years old and they trusted me to be in a superhero franchise alongside Batman and Wonder Woman [is so great] …

“I feel sorry in a way for most of the other actors who are cast as superheroes, because I know deep down inside, they are so stoked and they’re freaking out. Chris Evans must be like, ‘I’m Captain America!’ — but when you have to PLAY Captain America, it’s a much more serious, brooding kind of deal.

“On set, I got to play every ounce of my ‘stoked-ness’ for getting this job.”

Even though Shazam is several shades lighter than the typical “Justice League” fare, it takes place in the DCEU. The kids in “Shazam” are aware of the existence of “real-life” characters such as Batman and Superman.

“We reference all of that in the movie,” said Levi. “All of those movies might as well have been documentaries in this universe … the Batman toys, etc., in this movie reflect real characters in this world …”

So does this mean Shazam will find a place at the DCEU table with the big boys and girls?

“I think so,” said Levi. “But that’s way above my pay grade. … Shazam IS a part of the Justice League in a lot of iterations of it … and I definitely think if we’re blessed enough to have more ‘Justice Leagues,’ Shazam would be a part of that. …

“But yeah, I would LOVE to do a team superhero movie.”

For all the sight gags and one-liners, “Shazam!” has its violent, serious moments. The director is David F. Sandberg, whose feature debut, “Lights Out,” was one of the best and one of the scariest horror movies of this decade.

“It’s a family movie, it’s a buddy movie … but also, kind of dark,” said Levi. “It’s a PG-13 movie for a reason … and with David coming from a horror background … It kinda feels like a classic Amblin type of movie. …”

Shazam literally takes on the Seven Deadly Sins, a storyline Levi, a man of faith, found particularly intriguing.

“As a spiritual person [when I read the script], I was like, … ‘Wow, so I get to be a superhero, and I get to be a superhero who’s fighting sin, like literally fighting the darkness of sin, that is so cool!’ ”

It’s like “Seven,” I said, without that whole thing that happens to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Which leads to Levi doing a pitch-perfect take on Brad Pitt’s anguished exclamation near the end of the film: “What’s in the box? What’s in the box!”

And there’s your air hockey/Brad Pitt one-two combo.