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 is 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.