Shazam 2 and the Birth of the Lame Duck Superhero Movie

Shazam! Fury of the Gods might be the victim of a new Hollywood trend: shared universe movies that lead to nowhere.

New Costumes of Shazam 2 Cast
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Things appeared pretty dire for Shazam! Fury of the Gods when less than two weeks before release, Warner Bros. Pictures spoiled a major surprise in a TV spot: Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, aka the star of one of the most popular and best reviewed DCEU films, is appearing in a cameo alongside Shazam star Zachary Levi.

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Typically, this is the kind of surprise that’s guarded with the utmost secrecy; an “easter egg” that folks’ jobs would be on the line to protect. It’s the cheerworthy moment that’s supposed to tie one beloved DC superhero franchise’s story to another’s, and make fans excited to see new films about each. Yet there it was, airing before practically every March Madness college basketball game in the U.S., and all in a desperate attempt to generate more buzz ahead of Shazam 2’s opening weekend. Obviously the box office tracking must have been terrifying, and now we know by how much since the weekend estimates for Fury of the Gods’ opening weekend pegs the superhero sequel’s debut gross at… $30.5 million, well below even the most meager floor WB wanted to set with its $35 million projections.

That is a grim opening for a film that’s predecessor, 2019’s Shazam!, bowed at $53.5 million. While the sequel reportedly cost the same amount as the first film, with a reported budget of $100 million (a rarity in Hollywood), no studio gets into the superhero franchise game so sequels can make less than their predecessors. And the 43 percent drop between openings that Fury of the Gods just demonstrated is brutal. It’s also probably the final nail in the coffin of the character’s chances to appear in another DC film, at least in his current incarnation.

And yet, it’s worth considering whether the problem that damned Shazam 2 is that the character was already doomed to the dustbin of Hollywood franchise history—one more product launch that had preemptively been discarded by a studio intent on rebranding, and another tax write-off for that same studio’s parent company. In an age where interconnected superhero movies that cross-promote each other are increasingly relied on to prop up the fiscal calendars of entire media empires, a modern and bizarre phenomenon has begun to take shape: the ignominious death of the lame duck superhero movie.

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In the popular parlance, the term “lame duck” generally refers to an elected official (especially U.S. presidents) who has reached the end of their term in office and has no hope of continuing on. This can be an election year where the sitting President of the United States is rounding out their second term (or announced they are not running again), and therefore may have little political capital left for allies to rely on, or it can have added resonance to a leader who has already been defeated in an election and has a matter of weeks or months left before departing. If party control changes hands in the legislature, an entire Congress or state assembly can be viewed as “a lame duck” in the final days of the calendar year.

We’ve seen this phenomenon occur in politics, business, and even academia. However, Shazam 2’s box office failure may be only the second or third time it’s occurred in the mercurial world of big budget Hollywood spectacle. And there’s a very simple reason for that. Even though sequels are almost as old as the movies themselves (the first being The Fall of a Nation, a 1916 cash-in follow-up to D.W. Griffith’s love letter to the KKK, The Birth of a Nation), until recently producers and studios weren’t greenlighting battalions of them at the same time.

Barely over 20 years ago, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy raised a lot of eyebrows in the industry because New Line Cinema bet the first film would be a hit and thus allowed Jackson to film all three movies simultaneously in New Zealand. Fans’ love for this nerdy source material is all well and good, the conventional wisdom went, but what happens if general audiences don’t show up en masse? In December 2001, The New York Times called it New Line’s big gamble to produce three films at the same time, noting how when the project was first announced there was skepticism around Hollywood. If it didn’t hit, New Line would be stuck with two lame duck sequels no one wanted, and they would surely be sunk and subsumed into Warner Bros. by its parent company (a fate LOTR delayed for about seven years, as it turned out).

Of course those were quainter times when studios relied on a healthy portfolio of films in different genres and budget classes. It’s another story now, particularly for studios like Warner Bros. and Disney that have entire stables of popular intellectual property to exploit thanks to acquiring the two most popular comic book companies of the 20th century. Disney and Marvel Studios showed the full potential in capitalizing on this material by building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the rest of the town has been more or less chasing that model ever since.

In fact, it is WB’s shifting and inconsistent reactions to the Marvel method, which pivot each time WB leadership changes hands every few years, that has arguably led to Shazam! Fury of the Gods being dead on arrival. Because the wheel turned and turned again between the time Shazam 2 went before cameras and when it opened in theaters, its studio had already signaled by March 2023 that the sequel is a relic from an aborted business plan. Like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, it doesn’t even know it’s dead before the movie starts.

This cold reality became apparent after James Gunn and Peter Safran assumed the roles of co-heads of DC Studios at WB, now answering directly to new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, the latter of whom has demanded that the company build another 10-year model in which the DC brand mirrors what Marvel Studios has built at Disney. These behind-the-scenes negotiations and power plays spilled embarrassingly into public view, too, when less than six months ago Henry Cavill returned with (some?) fanfare to the role of Superman in Black Adam, which is itself technically a spinoff from Shazam! At the time, it appeared like star Dwayne Johnson had convinced WB to reincorporate elements of “the Snyderverse” (the mid-2010s DC superhero movies that previously attempted to directly compete with Marvel) into the gameplan going forward.

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To strangle that narrative in the crib, Gunn had to very publicly explain to Cavill that he was not coming back as Superman. They’re going in a different direction. Around the same time, WB (before Gunn and Safran assumed their new roles) parted ways with Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman 3, even though she delivered WB the best film in the official DCEU (or “Snyderverse”) canon with Wonder Woman (2017). The quality of Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) aside, its box office performance is also impossible to evaluate since the picture was released on HBO Max during the height of the COVID pandemic.

While Gadot has not officially been separated from the Wonder Woman role in the way that Cavill was from Superman, it’s certainly eyebrow-raising that there is no mention of Gadot in Gunn’s splashy online video announcement of “Chapter 1” for his new cinematic version of the DC Universe.

Admittedly, Shazam! director David F. Sandberg attempted to offer some glimmer of hope about the Shazam family’s role in all this by repeatedly suggesting in the press that we might see more of Levi and the gang if audiences show up for the sequel, but what kind of incentive is there when the entire public perception seems to be that Gunn and Safran are having a fire sale with the old DCEU versions of the character? Everything must go.

There are other possible contributing factors to Fury of the Gods’ failure, of course, not least of which is that the family market has remained a difficult nut to crack in the post-pandemic years. Perhaps the character just isn’t that popular? However, even Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania opened at $106 million, about 30 percent above its 2018 predecessor. The movie pulled that off despite tepid reviews and poor word-of-mouth (the latter of which sank Ant-Man 3 the following weekend when it had the largest drop in MCU history), in part because the movie wasn’t marketed as an Ant-Man movie; it was marketed as the next major event in the MCU that will introduce the villain you’re going to really love to hate for the next three years. REALLY!

This is the upside of the shared cinematic universe model; even your most mediocre film entries can be upsold when they’re marketed as glorified trailers for a film down the road that you might enjoy. Conversely, Shazam 2 reveals the downside of the business model. When the system starts to break, it takes everything with it, no matter how positive the reviews or word-of-mouth. And when the dust clears, you’re left with two or even three movies headed into theaters while the sound of “Taps” is being played.

In an increasingly online 21st century where audiences skew younger (especially for superhero movies) and are plugged in on social media, the sort of inside baseball that didn’t matter to audiences two decades ago lining up for Fellowship of the Ring is common knowledge in 2023—especially if your superhero studio’s co-head is chronically on Twitter and doing video announcements about how he’s tearing a lot of it down. Which puts us in unprecedented territory. Now your movie can flop not because of the buzz or the marketing, or even the last one’s reception; it can flop because these movies are sold as interconnected advertisements for each other, and suddenly whatever Shazam 2 is advertising has as much relevance to future DC movies as Cavill showing up in the post-credits scene of Black Adam.

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The only other clear time we’ve seen this play out is after Disney bought 20th Century Fox. Because that studio was trying with mixed success at building its own shared universe of Marvel superheroes based on the X-Men license, this meant Disney inherited two X-Men films in Dark Phoenix (2019) and New Mutants (2020). Both were released out of obligation by Disney and both failed to find a major audience. Admittedly, the quality was pretty poor, especially for Dark Phoenix. However, each followed on the heels of well-received X-Men movies like Logan (2017) and Deadpool 2 (2018), and at least New Mutants might have benefitted from long-planned reshoots to beef up the action and strengthen the storytelling. The version that was dumped in the middle of the pandemic was clearly unfinished.

But then why dump money into a lame duck superhero movie that teased sequels that will never come? The word was already out online that New Mutants was DOA, so let it die in ignominy.

It seems Shazam 2 suffered the same fate despite being a sequel to a generally well-regarded superhero movie. Nevertheless, it opened smaller than Creed III and Scream VI, the latter of which cost a third of Shazam 2’s budget. Even including Wonder Woman in the marketing proved moot. In a future where Gadot returning to a role she’s beloved in is doubtful, and the shared universe brand is more important to the studio than even the quality of individual films, who cares if her last appearance as Diana is opposite Zachary Levi? Their time might already be up.