What Killed ‘Shazam 2’ Wasn’t a Supervillain
When the first Shazam! movie debuted in 2019, it felt like a relative breath of fresh air in the comic book movie output of the teenies. It came out the same year that Avengers: Endgame did, with all eyes on Marvel’s ambitious ending to their Infinity Saga. In terms of DC Comics adaptations, Shazam! was coming on the heels of the surprise success of 2018’s Aquaman, which seemed to borrow a lot of its success from Marvel: a lighter tone, spectacular visuals, a story that felt epic but with stakes that felt personal as it only focused on a handful of characters.
All that context was the superhero movie world that the first Shazam! entered into. By year’s end, DC would come to have its greatest critical success, as well as some of its greatest box office success since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
The plot of Shazam! involves Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenaged foster kid who gets put into a new home with a family that already has five other foster children. Billy is chosen by a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) after defending his disabled foster brother and superhero enthusiast Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). The wizard grants Billy the power to become Shazam, transforming Billy into an adult superhero played by Zachary Levi while still maintaining his teenage self. As Freddy and Billy try to determine what Billy’s new powers are and Billy tries to keep up a search for his biological mother, the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is also trying to acquire the wizard’s powers after being denied the opportunity to become the “chosen one” when he was a little boy.
Eventually, Billy uses the wizard’s powers to turn all of his foster siblings, including Freddy, but also ambitious student Mary (Grace Caroline Currey), gamer Eugene (Ian Chen), big, huggable Pedro (Jovan Armand), and Darla (Faithe Herman), the youngest and most good-natured of the bunch, into fellow superheroes. The team defeats Sivana, and Billy decides that this family will be his new forever home.
The first Shazam! differentiated itself with its sweet, whimsical tone and its genuinely funny comedy. Much like how Aquaman borrowed Marvel’s formula in order to translate a non-traditional superhero character to the big screen, with Shazam! it was as if it finally dawned on them that, like Marvel, their main audience should be families. In a DC era dominated by the dark, bleak stories and settings of the likes of Batman v. Superman, here was something light, fun, and poppy. The film’s poster had Zachary Levi as Shazam blowing a bubble with bubblegum while checking his phone, succinctly summarizing the film’s tone and ambitions in a single image.
Shazam is a character with deep roots in the comics and in pop culture generally. In fact, Elvis Presley was a massive fan of the character, taking notes on his iconic look from the fictional superhero. The character was initially named Captain Marvel and debuted in 1940, just 2 years after Superman. The “Captain Marvel” name has been a particular issue with too much history to go into here, but needless to say, competitor Marvel Comics’ character of the same name, and the blockbuster movie of the same name starring Brie Larson in the titular role, is probably why DC would prefer you think of the character as being named Shazam. Shazam was very popular because of his little-kid-turned-superhero conceit, at one point even outselling Superman comics. However, DC sued Fawcett Publications, Shazam’s publisher, over copyright infringement and won, leading to the character and all related characters and content eventually coming over to DC ownership over the course of several decades.
Shazam! was a decent success at the box office, but well-liked enough to merit a sequel. But before we got it, a pandemic happened, pushing all of DC’s plans back. Then, last fall came Black Adam, a project that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had been developing for years starring himself as the titular DC Comics antihero.
Black Adam is blessed with similar powers to Shazam and hails from the fictional nation of Kahndaq. He is awoken from his millennia-long slumber and vows to protect Kahndaq from new threats. A team of superheroes, including Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Adam Centineo), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), is also summoned to help deal with Black Adam, but eventually, they join forces to defeat the overarching antagonist.
Black Adam was tolerable, if not particularly memorable, perhaps most notable for a great turn by Pierce Brosnan. However, I can’t help but be annoyed at how much Dwayne Johnson didn’t seem to understand Black Adam, the character’s history, and his place in the overall DC universe. While teasing a showdown between Black Adam and Superman (Henry Cavill) in the movie’s post-credit scene seemed promising, that feels like something that they should have held up on in favor of having Black Adam face off against his actual archenemy, Shazam.
This brings us to the recently released Shazam! Fury of the Gods. It turns out that Billy’s activities in the first movie garnered the attention of powerful goddesses from mythology, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), who are the daughters of Atlas. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Billy and his superpowered siblings, dubbed “the Philly Fiascos” for the collateral damage they inadvertently cause, try striking a balance between their secret lives as superheroes and the regular goings-on of school-aged kids. Freddy develops a love interest at school named Anne (Rachel Zegler, best known as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story), who is eventually revealed to also be a goddess and fellow daughter of Atlas named Anthea. But all of their powers will be needed to defeat the vengeance-fueled sisters as they attack Philadelphia with a giant dragon and other magical creatures.
I thought Fury of the Gods was serviceable but not nearly as wonderful as its predecessor. What made the first one work were the relatively small stakes and the focus on Billy’s journey and eventually coming to accept his new home and family. With all of that now settled, the sequel opts for a more traditional superhero story with big, end-of-the-world (or Philadelphia, at the very least) stakes. Subplots include having to follow Freddy and the wizard through a misadventure trying to escape the goddesses’ palace. It’s a big moment when Billy and his siblings reveal their superpowered alter-egos to their parents, and it should be a moment with a lot of emotional payoffs. Instead, it’s only to be interrupted by a giant dragon crashing through their house.
There are some cute or touching moments, such as a moment of self-sacrifice by Billy towards the end. But, of course, he can’t stay dead, and his resurrection comes at the hands of a cameo from another prominent DC superhero, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). But for those of us who were so endeared to the first one, this sequel felt like it didn’t live up to expectations. The same can definitely be said of the film’s box office haul. It is very much a financial failure, failing to even match the first one despite a slightly higher budget. Its box office take is positively paltry in comparison to most other superhero movies.
If you had to ask me for a cause, I think the long gap between installments, plus a marketing campaign that didn’t feel as creative or emphasize the movie’s strengths as much as the one for the first movie did, are the likeliest culprits. The first one was able to break out because of good reviews and a lot of positive word-of-mouth. When this one was received much more reservedly, I think it served as the kiss of death at the box office.
So, what does this mean for the future of the character on film? Here’s how I see things potentially unfolding: I don’t think Shazam! 3 will be in the works for quite some time, if ever. It’s possible we’ll see another installment further down the line, but I’m not sure it would involve director David F. Sandberg. Rather, what I see happening is what was teased in Fury of the Gods’ post-credit scene: incorporating Shazam into familiar concepts from the larger DC Studios universe, in whatever form that ends up taking now that it is under the reins of James Gunn and Peter Safran. Zachary Levi in particular seems very gung-ho about returning as the character. However, an issue they will encounter is the aging of their young stars if there is another long gap between installments. Just ask the creators of Stranger Things.
I hope this isn’t the end of this iteration of the character. That first movie was so wholesome and fun, I remember seeing it in the theater with some friends and how much we all enjoyed it. In contrast, Fury of the Gods had to deal with obstacles its first one didn’t: a pandemic, bigger budgets, higher expectations, and more competition. It didn’t help that it didn’t seem to have a lot of the charm that made the first one so notable. I still think there is plenty of material to mine because, after all, the character has existed in the comics for almost as long as either Batman or Superman. But more than anything, I want something that will capture that energy of the first one again. Fury of the Gods wasn’t that, but I hope its lack of financial success doesn’t mean that it’s the last we’ll see of this incarnation of a legendary superhero.