Why Did Shazam!: Fury of the Gods Bomb?

There’s no spinning or gerrymandering this one; Shazam!: Fury of the Gods is a bomb. In terms of quality, I don’t think it should have been; I liked it very much (as did Tuggs, whose review you can read here), and unlike, say, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (or pretty much anything Marvel has put out lately), people worked hard to make it a good movie. It’s got character arcs, a plot that holds together, villains with motivations beyond twirling a mustache, a good message about trusting your loved ones and taking responsibility for yourself, and heart to spare. But, as a great man said in a great movie, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

But what does? Why did a good movie like Shazam!: Fury of the Gods fail to take off when the people at their wit’s end with similar films probably would’ve found what they were looking for with a goofy orphan and his superhero family? As is often the case, I think several things contributed to its failure, some outside of Warner Bros.’ control, others that could easily have been avoided.

But let’s start with a couple of things that didn’t contribute. First, with all respect to Zachary Levi, I don’t think the hardcore Snyder fans had much to do with it. I’m sure they’re annoying, but Snyder’s movies also underperformed, so the wider audience isn’t hungry for his mega-dark vision. The first Shazam! ended up doing better business than expected precisely (albeit partly) because it was a break from that dreary tone; ditto Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Outside of Batman films, the lighter DC stuff tends to do better, so whatever wailing those wishing Shazam would sneer as he punched through someone’s breastbone did or continue to do, they’re probably not significant enough to keep people away from a movie like this.

Another non-factor is Shazam’s absence from Black Adam. According to The Wrap, there were plans for a Black Adam post-credits scene in which the Justice Society of America would recruit Shazam, but The Rock pressured WB/DC to cut it. Rock wanted the big rivalry to be between himself and Superman, as opposed to his more traditional nemesis from the comics, which is why Henry Cavill showed up in the red and blue while Zachary Levi’s invite got lost in the mail. It’s a dick move, to be sure, and while Rock does deserve a lot of credit for hyping up the movie as much as he could, there was clearly a lot of ego involved. But I don’t think this had any impact on Shazam!: Fury of the Gods’ business. Black Adam bombed, too, so it’s not like it would have gotten audiences stoked to see Shazam again, even if he did show up after the credits.

Well, it didn’t directly affect Fury of the Gods, anyway; in a roundabout way, it’s part of the first major problem Warner Bros. threw at the film: they made it feel like it doesn’t matter. The most glaring and talked about way they did this was by announcing James Gunn and Peter Safran as the new heads of the new department, DC Studios, and then having Gunn unveil the first slate of projects under their leadership. Gunn did his best to keep things vague and included Shazam!: Fury of the Gods and the upcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, but it’s clear that once the movies made on their watch start, those that came before will be null and void. That means that Fury of the Gods and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom feel like apocrypha, novelties that will mean nothing in terms of any overarching stories. And once you’ve sold the DC films as a shared universe akin to the MCU, you can’t suddenly whine that people don’t take them as one-offs.

But it isn’t just Gunn and Safran’s coming reboot that makes people think Shazam!: Fury of the Gods isn’t important; it’s the way Warner Bros. treated Henry Cavill. Cavill appeared at the end of Black Adam with a lighter-toned suit and the John Williams theme to announce the actor’s return as a new, more traditional version of Superman. The Rock essentially confirmed this before the movie premiered (much like Warner Bros. would do to a similar would-be-surprise appearance in Fury of the Gods), and a few days later, Cavill confirmed he was back, with Warner Bros.’ blessing. Then, the rug was pulled out from under everyone, not least of all Cavill, when it was announced he would not be playing Superman anymore after all. Whatever your opinion of Cavill, this was a massive bungle that eradicated a lot of goodwill. Even if Warner Bros. said that Zachary Levi’s Shazam would be part of Gunn and Safran’s DCU, why would anyone believe them? Fans already felt like they were being played, and some of them didn’t want to get invested in something that’s going to be taken from them as soon as the new movie isn’t in theaters anymore.

Another reason that’s getting mentioned a lot is superhero fatigue, which has been bandied about since Avengers: Endgame wrapped up Marvel’s Infinity Saga. There’s some truth to it, although I think it’s more guilt by association rather than “superhero fatigue” in general. The last comic book film to hit theaters was Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which was released exactly a month before Shazam!: Fury of the Gods. That was also a bomb, although its failure happened differently than Fury of the Gods’ did. Whereas the latter crashed and burned right out of the gate, Quantumania had an okay opening weekend and dropped massively in its second, a hit from which it never recovered. That kind of failure is a rejection; audiences didn’t like Quantumania, and they not only didn’t see it again but told their friends it sucked.

Releasing another superhero movie a month after that is suicide; general audiences – that is, those who aren’t comic book fans, or “normies” – took one look at Zachary Levi flying around in his super suit and said, “Not another one.” They had just seen people in costumes fighting all-powerful villains to save the world, and the experience left a bad taste in their mouths. They needed a palate cleanser before another cape fest, and a month isn’t enough time to allow them to find one. This isn’t really on Warner Bros.; Fury of the Gods had done the COVID shuffle a few times, and nobody knew Quantumania would be as bad as it was. Once that bomb detonated, it was too late to move Fury of the Gods yet again. So they were stuck dealing with the fallout of Marvel’s latest disaster, which is a shame because Shazam!: Fury of the Gods is a much better movie than Quantumania.

That it was a good movie could have worked in its favor with good word of mouth, but Warner Bros. made another big mistake by not allowing people to discover some of the film’s secrets for themselves and telling their friends to see it. The one I’m most thinking of is that big appearance by a beloved character that Warner Bros. decided to spoil in a commercial. The intent was to encourage people to see the film, but that was a miscalculation. If that scene wasn’t ruined, it would have had audiences on their feet cheering, and that would have spurred some great word of mouth by regular people, who are infinitely better at generating buzz than movie studios appear to be. (“Dude, trust me, you have to see this!” vs. “Here are all of the things that happen. Please give us $20.”) Shazam!: Fury of the Gods could have generated the opposite kind of buzz Quantumania did, but Warner Bros. took that away from themselves by first taking it away from the audience.

Finally, there’s one that few outlets seem to want to mention because they never do. But I think this may have been an important factor, as it was in several other recent movies. In Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, there’s – not a subplot so much as a gag (and not even a running gag) about one of Billy Batson’s foster brothers, Pedro, being gay. This is a very minor aspect of the film, featuring only in two scenes (three if you consider his superhero alter ego walking out of a closet a sight gag). Christian Toto’s review (which is very positive overall) puts it perfectly:

“‘Fury of the Gods’ promised a more inclusive story, so we’re told one of the family members is gay via two awkward screen moments that last roughly six seconds. Maybe seven.

Score one for diversity!”

He’s right; it’s so minuscule it barely needs to be discussed – so, of course, the screenwriters couldn’t help patting themselves on the back for how inclusive and heroic they were in making one of the characters gay. Shazam!: Fury of the Gods isn’t a woke movie, outside of Pedro’s coming out (and that’s only kind of woke because it has no bearing on anything else in the film and sticks out like a sore thumb; it’s a prime example of “there just to be there”); in fact, lots of elements in it are decidedly un-woke. But when the idiots behind the film preen like this ahead of its release, they change the conversation from “Fun superhero movie” to “Important film about social issues,” and that’s a red flag nowadays. When something like that is stuffed into a movie like Shazam!, people know it’s there for scoring points.

It’s a shame Shazam!: Fury of the Gods is bombing so spectacularly. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to see it, especially if you liked the first one. (You should see John Wick: Chapter 4, too, although I don’t think I’ll have to convince anyone of that.) It would be great if they were able to pull out a Cinderella-story victory, but at this point, that’s a bigger fantasy than a child wielding the power of the gods.

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