How Warner Bros. has sold its latest super hero sequel
Shazam!: Fury of the Gods arrives in theaters this week four years after the first movie was released and as a new case study in creative title punctuation. Zachary Levi returns as the titular hero and Asher Angel as the young Billy Batson, his alter ego. This time he’s joined from the outset by the rest of the Shazam Family – Billy’s foster siblings who now have their own hero identities – in his adventures. Those powers have gotten the attention of Kalypso (Lucy Liu), Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Anthea (Rachel Zegler), the daughters of the Titan Atlas, who are out for revenge against the Council of Wizards, especially wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who gave Billy his powers, for killing their father.
David F. Sandberg is back in the director’s chair as well, even as the movie arrives at an odd moment. Originally scheduled for release a year ago, it now finds itself a vestigial limb of the DC Extended Universe: It’s very much part of the universe focused around Man of Steel, Justice League, Aquaman and other entries (even if the connection in the first film was flimsy at best) but in the last few months James Gunn and Peter Safran have taken over the division and made it clear they’re largely cutting ties with that old continuity.
So the stakes in terms of what this story means and how it will influence future entries are extremely low because it seems there will be no impact as the old is replaced by the new. Still, the first movie was well-received for its less dark tone and Levi’s performance, which means it’s time to dive into the campaign and see how Warner Bros. has balanced all of that and more.
announcement and casting
WB announced in early 2020 that it was being pushed from April, 2022 to November of that year.
Well before the movie’s marketing started, Sanberg took the opportunity created by a bunch of reviews mysteriously being posted to Letterboxd to have a bit of fun and create a completely fake trailer for the non-existent film in August, 2020.
Later that same month Levi made a scheduled appearance at DC’s virtual Fandome event, revealing the movie’s subtitle and having a bit of fun with comedian Sinbad, the subject of one of pop culture’s greatest myths/prophecies.
A couple months later in October WB announced that the combination of the pandemic and production delays the release date was being moved from late 2022 to June, 2023.
Most of the original cast had confirmed their return by that point. Zegler was added in an undisclosed role in mid-2021, with Mirren and Liu joining around the same time.
the marketing campaign: phase one (first steps)
Sandberg offered a very brief teaser in June 2021, promising the movie was coming “soon…ish.” A few weeks later the director shared a picture of the adult cast in full costume, showing off the changes in those costumes since the first movie.
The movie was among those slated for the second edition of DC Fandome in October 2021. During that event a behind the scenes video was shared along with first looks at the villains played by Mirren and Liu.
In April 2022 exhibitors and others got a look at the movie when it was part of the studio’s presentation at CinemaCon.
the marketing campaign: phase two (basically just comic-con)
While it was still scheduled to hit theaters in December 2022 the cast and Sandberg appeared at San Diego Comic-Con in July of that year to share their excitement for the sequel with fans and talk about what they could expect of the movie. Mirren was not there in person but did weigh in via recorded segment.
That’s also where the first trailer (18m YouTube plays) was released. It starts by more clearly establishing itself as part of what at the time was the DCEU as Billy, in therapy as Shazam, talks about how he’s not as cool or unique as heroes like Flash, Aquaman and Batman. He explains his backstory a bit before we get into the vague conflict between the heroes and the Daughters of Atlas, who are upset that those children have stolen the powers of the gods. Billy still seems to be having fun as a super hero, though, and the tone is still much lighter than in other movies from this universe.
A month later in August, after having moved the film’s release to June it was then shifted again, this time up to March because it was ready before Aquaman 2, which had previously been in that calendar slot.
the marketing campaign: phase three (for real this time)
The first poster only came out in November of last year, once the final release date was established. It’s a variation on the one-sheets for the first movie, this time showing Shazam looking like he’s doing a fun little dance as smoke and sparks surround him.
In December DC unveiled the movie-themed variant covers planned for select March releases to coincide with the movie hitting theaters.
The next poster was shared exclusively by IGN in January. This one shows Shazam in a more traditional upright heroic pose, different parts of the background split up by a lightning bolt show the other characters, including the Daughters of Atlas, the Wizard and the rest of the Shazam Family.
Also hitting in January was the second trailer (26m YouTube plays). This one gets to the threat posed by the Daughters of Atlas right off the bat before sidetracking into Billy talking about everything that’s changed in the last few years, especially everyone getting powers. It then establishes the story as one of Billy choosing to stand up and do the right thing despite a series of setbacks and nagging self-doubt over his abilities. Also, it’s about massive CGI dragons attacking Philadelphia.
Around the same time DC released a preview of its “Shazam! Fury of the Gods Special #1 – Shazamily Matters”, a special prequel comic with a story that sets the stage for where the characters are as the movie starts.
Footage from the trailer was cut down into TV spots like this one that began running in early February.
Levi appeared in a PSA for pet adoption that ran, along with a dedicated TV commercial for the movie, during the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet in February.
Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook users could send their friends an AR quiz to determine their super power, with the finished results including a costume of their own overlaid on the video.
An interview with Mirren had her talking about how she agreed to be in this movie because she loved the first one so much but that the story was so convoluted she couldn’t even explain it, so just don’t worry about it.
Exclusive posters were released for Dolby and ScreenXUSA as tickets were going on sale in mid-February. To mark that event Fandango also released an exclusive interview with the cast, who all gushed about the great time they had making the movie.
Character posters for Shazam, Hespera, Kalypso and Anthea also came out.
At the end of February and into early March the cast hit the road for the press tour, including stops in Rome, London, Toronto and elsewhere for special screenings and red carpet fan events.
Levi appeared in two more PSA spots, one from the Ad Council to raise awareness about teen adoption and foster care and one to raise funds for No Kid Hungry to fight child hunger in the U.S.
Items and characters from the movie were added to Roblox’s Strongman Simulator game.
Mirren and Levi appeared on “The Masked Singer” along with DC’s Jim Lee as special guest for “DC Superheroes Night.”
Skittles released a co-branded commercial to capitalize on the candy’s use in the film to tame unicorns.
In a bold move, a short TV spot that came out earlier this week includes an appearance by Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, a cameo that was previously unconfirmed and which again comes off as kind of odd given the future of that incarnation of the character is up in the air at the moment.
Everyone came out for the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles despite the rain in that region creating a very wet experience for everyone. While there Levi and others talked about not only this movie and what it was like to return (or join) for the sequel but also speculate about their potential involvement in future films.
A feature that focused on both Mirren and Liu had them talking about joining the story, what makes their characters unique and the bulkiness of their costumes.
Adam Brody, who plays the heroic version of Freddy, appeared on “Late Night” while both Liu and Levi appeared separately on “The Tonight Show.” Those two also showed up together on both “Today” and “Good Morning America.”
Tracking for the movie indicates a fairly underwhelming $35-40m opening weekend, but there appear to be hopes that such projections aren’t fully accounting for family audiences who may be uncertain about committing to heading to theaters amid both the continued pandemic and massive inflation.
The campaign, though, has some very nice touches that have sold the movie well despite the myriad challenges it faces.
Themed and relevant PSAs: Levi personally appears in at least three cause-related PSAs designed to raise awareness/funds for social issues, including those dealing with foster care, childhood hunger and pet adoption. The actor has spoken out in the past about his own mental health issues and how he’s overcome those, so it makes a lot of sense for them to be part of this campaign and they work well in this context as well.
Continued sense of fun: Even with the elements that show how Billy is struggling with his role as a superhero, the campaign keeps communicating a lighthearted tone that’s in-line with that established in the first movie.
How much those overcome the very real complications of potential superhero fatigue in the audience, the uncertain future of these characters in the DC film franchise and more remains to be seen, but on the whole it’s an entertaining and engaging marketing effort.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
Lots of talk following the movie’s release from Sandberg about how the post-credits cameo came about and what he thought about the film’s marketing. He also commented on how this might mark his last super hero movie, at least for a while.
The movie’s writers also weighed in on cameos and more. And there was plenty of chatter, especially from Levi, about cameos that did or didn’t happen and why that might be.