The Shazam! movie series has always been looked down on as the little kid of the DC Cinematic Universe (DCEU). In some respects, that’s fitting. After all, Shazam! is about a teenager – Billy Batson – who, after acquiring superpowers via magical means, transforms into an adult whenever he shouts the name "Shazam!".
Yet, compared to his DC peers, Shazam is one of DC’s oldest superheroes. Few superpowered beings were created as early as Shazam by the comic book giant, who made his debut in February 1940. Add in the character’s ties to the Greek gods – one of the most revered, ancient, and culturally and historically significant mythologies – and Shazam deserves to be recognized alongside Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
For David F. Sandberg, director of 2019’s Shazam! and its follow-up Shazam! Fury of the Gods – the latter of which fully explores the superhero’s ties to Greek mythology – there’s a congeniality between Zeus, Atlas, and company, and today’s (albeit fictional) superpowered beings.
"Greek gods and the mythological creatures they battled are the original superheroes and villains," Sandberg tells TechRadar. "So it fits pretty well into this universe and story we tell in Shazam! 2. And, for someone like me who loves mythological beings, getting the chance to play with minotaurs, manticores, harpies, unicorns, and dragons in a superhero movie was a dream come true!"
Gods and monsters
Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens two years after the first DC movie ended. Billy Batson (Asher Angel), Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the rest of the Vasquez foster kids are older but certainly not wiser – especially when it comes to using their superpowers. You know, after Billy gifted them the same abilities as him during Shazam!’s climactic battle.
Having spent the intervening period fighting crime – somewhat ineffectively, mind you, given the public calls them the ‘Philadelphia Fiascos’ for the destruction they leave behind – Billy and his siblings’ bond should be watertight. Except, it isn’t. Freddy wants to be his own superhero and Mary (Grace Caroline Curry) has more human priorities – namely, holding down an actual job and wanting to go to college. Among these and the other foster kids' problems, Billy is struggling to hold the group together.
Well, until the villainous Daughters of Atlas – Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and Athena (Rachel Zegler) – arrive on Earth. Seeking vengeance on Billy and co for stealing the Greek gods’ powers, the trio quickly positions itself as a new, world-ending threat that Billy’s adult superhero alter ego (Zachary Levi) and his allies must deal with. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, actually. As the main trailer for Shazam! Fury of the Gods shows, Billy and his cohorts are clearly outthought and outfought by the Greek goddesses. The disparity between their fighting skills, teamwork, and superpowered experience couldn’t be more stark, particularly in the film’s first and second acts, even with the Shazamily (the term affectionately given to Billy and company by the movie’s cast and crew) outnumbering the Daughters of Atlas two-to-one.
The juxtaposition between the two groups extends beyond the confines of the story and the themes being explored, though. To further accentuate the divide, Sandberg and the film’s crew opted for visually distinct looks for each team. For the Shazamily, that meant imbuing them with vivid, eye-popping coloramas and sleek, form-fitting costumes. Countering that aesthetic is the Daughters of Atlas’ muted hues and unmistakably ancient battle armor, complete with regal headdresses and sharp edges. Doubling down on the unique visuals, Sandberg and his creative team played with film grain and color grading to evoke a more pronounced contrast.
"The Shazamily’s color is something we’ve played with a lot," Sandberg explains. "Sometimes you have to do little fixes in the DI (digital intermediate) and grading to make sure they’re not too bright. I’ve seen comments online that liken them to the Power Rangers, and I’m always like 'Not quite'. For the Daughters of Atlas, we wanted something that’s badass and feels very inspired by Ancient Greece, so we went for darker tones with that aspect.
"With the film grain, it helps to make things feel more organic and definitely aids the VFX (visual effects). It takes the edge off it because, when it’s too clear – I mean, the more degraded you can make the picture, the better you can mesh the visuals in there as it’s always hard making things look like they’re there. We were working with some of the best studios in the business, which always helps. We had Weta working on the creatures, Pixomondo, who’s worked on Game of Thrones, and DNEG doing a bunch of the dragon stuff."
Here be dragons
As Sandberg attests, Fury of the Gods leans into the monstrous myths of Ancient Greece, with dragons – known as drakōn in Greek culture – playing a significant role in its storied history. Typhon is regarded as the most well-known and fearsome dragon in Greek mythology. But it’s Ladon, another terror-inducing beast with ties to the Hesperides, who inspires the Daughters of Atlas and takes center stage in Shazam! 2, especially in the movie’s third and final act.
Bringing Ladon to life – in a superhero movie, no less – proved no easy task. Other Warner Bros-owned properties, such as House of the Dragon and The Hobbit trilogy, have grounded dragon designs in reality in recent years. Ladon’s unusual features were difficult to depict in a live-action format, too. Differentiating Ladon from what’s come before, as well as honoring its fabled anatomy, proved to be one of the movie crew’s biggest challenges.
"In Greek mythology, Ladon has over 100 heads," Sandberg explains. "Initially, I thought 'can you make a dragon with 100 heads? Can we create one with tiny heads that form to make a bigger head? What about having small heads all over his body?' In the end, it was impossible. We could have had three, five, even eight heads, but they all proved too difficult [to create].
"Then we asked how we could differentiate him from Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon. Some of it is just minor details to set him apart from what we’ve seen before. Ladon has four legs, whereas, in Game of Thrones, the wings are its front legs. But the big thing for Ladon is that it’s made out of wood, which makes sense as he’s the protector of the Tree of Life. Abilities wise, we also gave him the power of fear that he can project, which makes anyone freeze in place out of terror."
Cinematic cues and video game hues
Shazam! Fury of the Gods doesn’t solely rely on Ancient Greece and the hero’s comic book history as its main inspirations. Perhaps unusually for a western superhero franchise, Japanese video games and anime influenced large swathes of the movie’s action and topography. As Sandberg reveals, Nintendo’s legendary game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time serves as a major reference point for Shazam! 2’s imposing, gritty take on Mount Othrys and the Temple of the Gods.
"I also used a frame from Akira – the big explosion that happens at the start and end of that movie – to reference the dome explosion in Fury of the Gods," Sandberg reveals. "It’s a challenge to communicate what’s in your head and get people to understand what you mean, so using movie stills and comics as shortcuts are super helpful. With that Akira frame, I was like 'This big, white-out explosion is what I want in this climactic battle scene' which helped our artists and animators have a point of reference of what’s in your head."
I also sent them this reference from Ocarina of Time on the N64. Because I’m old. pic.twitter.com/njamhadriqFebruary 1, 2023
Then there’s the issue of making the Daughters of Atlas’ abilities look as distinct as possible. Hespera’s elemental powers and Kalypso’s mind-control skills were simplistically unique enough that little creativity was required to flesh them out. Athena’s Power of Axis abilities, which allow Zegler’s antagonist to rotate the earth (and everything built on it) under her feet, proved more problematic thanks to DC’s biggest rival – Marvel – already showcasing similar visuals in one of its movies.
"Anthea’s power is very similar to what we see in Doctor Strange," Sandberg admits. "We had trouble working out how to make it look dissimilar to that. We couldn’t have the spinning recursion-like visuals, so we made it look more mechanical and rotative to make it feel and appear different."
Regardless of how it performs at the box office, Shazam! Fury of the Gods could be the final time we see this iteration of the character on the big screen.
With James Gunn and Peter Safran installed as the new co-heads of DC Studios in October 2022, the DCEU is undergoing a major overhaul. It'll be rechristened as the DC Cinematic Universe (DCU) once its final projects – including Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – are released in theaters. The Flash, another forthcoming DCEU movie, has been positioned as the film that’ll "reset the entire DCU" by Gunn. Meanwhile, the lack of any Shazam-led film or TV show in DCU Chapter One: Gods and Monsters, has cast further doubt on his live-action future.
Sandberg, though, remains hopeful over Shazam’s place in DC’s rejuvenated cinematic franchise, noting "there’s nothing in these movies [Shazam! and Shazam! Fury of the Gods] that contradict DC’s future plans", which leaves the door open for the character's return. The movie has two post-credits scenes that reportedly tease Shazam’s DCU future but, to stop spoilers from leaking out, neither sequence was included in advanced press screenings. Shazam! 2 contains a big cameo, too, but it's unrelated to the character's time in the DCU.
For now, Sandberg is satisfied with his dabblings in the superhero genre. It’s unclear if he’ll be asked back to direct Shazam! 3 or another DCU film. If he returns, audiences can expect more Japan-inspired, horror-infused, and fascinatingly mythological stories to come.
"They [Gunn and Safran] can make more Shazam! movies," he surmises. "If they want to do it now, I wouldn’t do it – I need a little bit of a break as I’ve made these films back to back! But it’s certainly something I’d consider. I’m open to talk about anything DC, so they know where to find me."
Shazam! Fury of the Gods debuts exclusively in theaters on Friday, March 17.