Black Adam and Shazam: Fury of the Gods suggest that DC Films is taking a page out of the MonsterVerse playbook.

We got word early this week that Lucy Liu was joining the ridiculously stacked cast of Henry Gayden and David F. Sandberg’s Shazam: Fury of the Gods. The Ally McBeal/Charlie’s Angels/Elementary star will be joining Helen Mirren and West Side Story‘s Rachel Zegler among franchise newbies alongside returning cast members (Zackary Levi, Mark Strong and Billy Batson’s entire foster family) from the first Shazam! Meanwhile, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam operates as a backdoor Justice Society flick. Dwayne Johnson stars alongside Noah Centineo’s Atom Smasher, Sarah Shahi’s Isis, Aldis Hodge’s Hawkman, Quintessa Swindell’s Cyclone and Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate. What’s interesting is two-fold. First, the Shazam films and Black Adam seem to be creating their little cinematic universe within the larger DC Films franchise. Second, at a glance, this DC Films franchise appears to be taking a page from the MonsterVerse playbook.

DC Films launched in summer 2013 with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. That Henry Cavill-starring Superman reboot earned enough to be a hit ($291 million domestic and $668 million worldwide) but not enough to be an unqualified smash (that it was incredibly frontloaded and divisive was just as problematic). In an arguably classic Warner Bros. panic play, they threw Ben Affleck’s Batman into the sequel, which became Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Zack Snyder-directed flick was a commercial hit, earning $330 million domestic and $873 million worldwide, but suffered from poor reviews, mediocre word-of-mouth and massive frontloading (it opened with $424 million worldwide). Without dwelling on that much-dissected history ( the “Ultimate Edition” is better), conventional wisdom suggests that Warner Bros. should have offered a Man of Steel 2 and a stand-alone Batman movie before pitting the two comic book titans against each other.

That makes the evolution of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which exists concurrently with DC Films in the Warner Bros. release slate, so bemusing. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla earned $200 million domestic (from a $93 million debut) and $529 million worldwide in 2014. That was followed not by an immediate Godzilla Vs. Kong smackdown, but by Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island. That 1970-set prequel debuted amid solid reviews and solid buzz in early 2017. The film boasted a stacked cast, including John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly and Tom Hiddleston. It earned $168 million domestic from a $60 million debut plus $168 million in China (compared to $68 million for Godzilla in a swiftly expanding Chinese marketplace) and $569 million worldwide. Alas, subbing Gareth Edwards out for Michael Dougherty led to Godzilla: King of the Monsters to open five years after its predecessor.

Blame poor reviews, too long of a wait, critics liking Godzilla more than audiences and/or Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom, Rampage and The Meg stealing its thunder). Still, King of the Monsters (my son’s favorite MonsterVerse movie) earned just $390 million worldwide. That included $135 million in China (+70% from Godzilla and -25% from Skull Island) and $110 million domestic on a $180 million budget. 1.75-years later, Adam Wingard’s well-reviewed and well-received Godzilla Vs. Kong opened last month to best-case-scenario (especially on a Covid curve) business, earning $365 million and counting thus far, including $170 million in China. The factors that hindered it during the pandemic (closed marketplaces, capacity limits, theaters not operating during the day, etc.) were balanced out by excitement over the first big tentpole in the Covid vaccine era. Likewise, the circumstances of its release negated some of the indifference over King of the Monsters.

I’m not going to pretend that circumstances would have been identical for DC Films had they followed this specific plan. It’s possible a Batman movie would have out-grossed Man of Steel while Man of Steel 2 outright fumbled, leading to a revived Batman v Superman. That’s without getting into all the Justice League setup (including intros for Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash), which would have existed within three movies (plus Wonder Woman) instead of one. Moreover, Godzilla Vs. Kong was sold as the glorified pot of gold at the end of the MonsterVerse rainbow, not a significant steppingstone to a Destroy All Monsters-like event spectacular. In that sense, yeah, I’d argue the Zachary Levi films and the Dwayne Johnson flicks are likewise being used partially to set up the Shazam Vs. Black Adam title fight either in Black Adam 2 or (more likely) Shazam 3.   

Black Adam, initially a corrupted, ancient-Egyptian variation on Shazam/Captain Marvel (no, not that Captain Marvel), became the arch-nemesis of Shazam and his “Marvel family.” However, recent revamps and reboots (notably the 52 DC Comics relaunch in the mid-2000s) have fashioned him into an anti-hero who broke bad following a personal tragedy. I’m presuming that’s the plan for the Dwayne Johnson movie. Whether he’ll go full-baddie in later films, I cannot say, but it won’t be the first time Johnson played a sympathetic hero who would eventually go full-evil (The Scorpion King, which took place before The Mummy Returns). Warner Bros. can keep Black Adam (mostly?) out of Fury of the Gods because Shazam earned rave reviews and $366 million on a $90 million budget. It’s better to let audiences meet this specific Theo-Adam before he and Billy Batson’s super heroic alter-ego throw down.

If Shazam and Black Adam finally engage in, uh, mortal combat, it will be after audiences have (hopefully) seen two Shazam movies and one Black Adam flick. Not only will both characters be established within their franchises, but it will be a popular cinematic incarnation of Shazam meeting up with a (presumably) popular cinematic incarnation (played by a movie star no less) of Black Adam. Batman v Superman pitted a Superman who wasn’t all that popular against a Batman audiences had never met. Godzilla Vs. Kong pitted the MonsterVerse version of Godzilla against the MonsterVerse version of King Kong. It’s that specificity that matters, both for the MCU (it’s about specific versions of iconic superheroes played by well-known actors) and for the DC Films franchise (people like Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn).

So, yes, a “Shazam fights Black Adam” movie, and I’m presuming this will eventually come to pass, could be more popular in terms of reviews, audience buzz and post-debut legs than Batman v Superman. If that occurs, it will be because they took the proper lessons from the previous DC Films movies and the current MonsterVerse franchise. They didn’t rush into a promised marquee character-specific team-up/versus flick, letting both marquee characters build their respective in-franchise continuities (and well-liked supporting cast) amid a shared universe. They ensured that both combatants were fully-developed protagonists in their own stories and were specific incarnations of these characters whom audiences liked regardless of their previous interest in the source material or the IP. Black Adam opens July 29, 2022, while Shazam: Fury of the Gods opens June 2, 2023. Place your bets (I’m betting on the worm).