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[This story contains spoilers for Shazam! Fury of the Gods.]
Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan clearly like working together. The day before Shazam! Fury of the Gods hit theaters, the co-writers couldn’t say enough good things about each other, tossing questions and praise back and forth on a mid-morning Zoom call with The Hollywood Reporter.
“I’m a huge fan of Henry’s writing,” said Morgan, who’s known for his work as a screenwriter on The Fast and the Furious franchise, about hopping onto the Shazam! sequel with Gayden. “He has this kind of a superpower of being able to tap into a teen voice that I just have no access to…I just kind of am in awe of that.”
Gayden felt just as strongly about Morgan, and even wrote a Fast and Furious joke into into the script as a tribute.
“It literally is one of the greatest joys of me reading a script ever,” Morgan said of reading the nod for the first time. “Henry sends me an email, and he’s like ‘Hey, man, I did some work on this thing. Take a look at these pages.’ I read that in there and I laughed so hard.”
Shazam!, Fury of the Gods picks up two years after the events of the first film, with Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi) and the Shazam family experiencing growing pains and facing off against the daughters of Atlas, played by Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler.
The sequel arrives on the heels of major change at DC Studios, as James Gunn and Peter Safran were hired last year as the new co-chairs and co-CEOs of the Warner Bros. division. With no current plans for a third Shazam! installment at the studio, the future of the franchise remains up in the air. And although the film’s tepid box office opening and poor reviews hurt the likelihood of a third film, Fury of the Gods boasts a high audience rating of 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The co-writers sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the film’s new villains, the audience reaction to that surprise Wonder Woman cameo and their hopes for the future of the franchise amid uncertainty.
Henry, you wrote the first Shazam! film. Chris — how did you come on to this project?
Chris Morgan: Well, for me, it was super easy. Henry had everything pretty much already in place on the second film. I got a phone call from Walter Hamada and Henry and Peter Safran, and they said, “Hey, can you kind of come in for a few weeks and help out?” It was mostly just being a sounding board for them to bounce ideas off of. Some structural stuff on the back end and a little mythology, maybe blowing things up a little bit. But listen, when you get a call like that, there’s no way you’re saying no. It’s like a dream team. I’m a huge fan of Henry’s writing. He has this kind of a superpower of being able to tap into a teen voice that I just have no access to. Like, my teen years were — I mean, they were totally fine but — just very hard for me, and so I just have blotted them out. But for some reason, [Henry] can kind of get in there. He remembers the angst of growing up and all the little moments that I’ve kind of blocked out. He’s able to bring it into a modern day with the film and the characters. I just kind of am in awe of that.
Henry Gayden: I think Chris is underselling his contribution a little bit. We’ve known each other for a bit doing rooms, and I think you came in and read the first Shazam! and talked to us. So, I’ve known Chris for a bit and truly loved his movies and geeked out and told him some really nerdy Tokyo Drift stories when we first met. He came in and lent what I think is his superpower — which sounds like we practiced this, but I do think this — which is this superstructure in building story. We had all these characters, we had the theme, we knew the journey, we knew where we ended, but there was a lot of getting there and building up and mythology in the daughters. And how to juggle like 5,000 characters and tell the story and he really, really brought magic to that. That was invaluable.
Speaking of this film’s massive ensemble cast, how did you find the balancing act of continuing to develop existing characters, while creating space to flesh out new ones?
Gayden: For whatever reason, every project I take on has a billion characters and I just don’t know why I keep doing that. I finally got an assignment that had four main characters, and by the end of my first draft, there were 12. Like I just added people, you know? I basically just write a lot, and I give everyone room to breathe, and then put a script together that is way too long. Then we shoot it and we kind of cut it down more and more. But you know, Eugene (Ian Chen/Ross Butler) had a bigger story, Pedro’s (Jovan Armand/DJ Cotrona) crush on the baseball player had more scenes where he actually got to meet that player in the third act. In the process of development and even post, [we] just winnow it down to the essentials. And usually, if you’re coming from an authentic place, that will still break through. That’s my really messy process.
Morgan: I’ve learned along the way, having worked on a lot of ensemble projects, each character in each movie is someone’s favorite character in the entire franchise. So you want to make sure you give everybody their due and give them their great moments. As a writer, you love all the characters kind of equally, and you want to see them have the cheer moments from the audience. Very early on in my writing career, I had no idea what I was doing. I would just write incredibly long, single-spaced outlines that nobody could read or parse through. It was very difficult to track, you’d give it to an executive and be like, “This is what I’m thinking about for the script.” And it kind of was a script, but just hard to get through. So Walter Hamada, who was an executive at the time, we sat down and came up with this process, where I basically use post-it notes. I tried notecards that everyone recommends, but then I’d write too much on them. So I take post-it notes, and I use a big sharpie, and I write three or four words down of what each beat is, and I put it up on a window. And if the things don’t work, then I throw it away, and I can move them. I can pull it all down and then put it back. In fact, I remember I pitched I think it was Fast 4 for Vin [Diesel] — I took a stack of post-it notes from my window and went to his kitchen counter, and laid it [all out]. He looked at the story was like, “Holy shit.” It just helps.
After the first film’s post-credit scenes with Mister Mind (that diabolical genius worm with the robot voice), many thought he would be the villain in the sequel. Why the pivot?
Gayden: It was a kind of long development where we went down a lot of story avenues, and even wrote out a few drafts where Mister Mind and Sivana teamed up. There’s a scene where Sivana breaks out of prison without having to lift a finger because of Mister Mind’s help, which is one of my favorite scenes I’ve written. There was stuff there that was great, but none of it really serviced a natural growth for Billy. It felt a little redundant. It felt like we were doing the last movie just on a bigger scale. And the one thing that I had, like from the very beginning, before we even had a story was this has to be the story of a boy who’s never had a family. Now he’s finally gotten a family, and the natural next chapter would be he’s going to hold on too tight because he’s terrified to lose that family. And so if you introduce that as the story, he’s a kid who turns into a superhero, but doesn’t even know if he deserves it. The best villain was one that we could just create … villains that speak to all that. Villains who are a family, whose family was broken because of the actions of The Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and who want their powers back and also do not think that Billy deserves his powers, either.
Speaking of the daughters of Atlas, what was your main priority when it came to crafting them as villains for this film?
Morgan: The two things I love about them is that it is completely rooted in the story of Shazam! and where the powers came from. The fact that they’re stolen from another family just makes it feel like it is part and parcel of our character’s journey. It also gives your villains a real sense of — they’re not just being jerks, they have a real axe to grind with every member of our Shazam family. Their destiny, their family, their world, their everything was taken away by somebody and given to Shazam, and now they want to come get it back. And also, I will just say, the thing that I love most about it is you finally get to nail down the reason why it is Shazam. When I read every script, I was always laughing at their search to find good names for their superhero alter egos. It feels natural to finally just land it.
Gayden: I personally loved that you had three different perspectives on justice. You have one who wanted revenge, you have one who kind of came in and saw the people who did this to her father and was younger and curious, and then you had the older perspective, which was conflicted. And I liked having those three perspectives bouncing off of each other. Some of the most fun was crafting sisters who’ve lived with each other for millennia. There’s a moment that’s buried in the movie where Anthea’s (Zegler) being like, “But humans can be good!” And Kalypso (Liu) goes, “Anthea, you simpering bore.” I love that these sisters get to call each other out on things. It was a lot of fun to write. Also, just three women as villains was pretty badass and awesome.
Morgan: And those three women, in particular.
Definitely. And Chris, you’ve worked on The Fast and the Furious franchise in the past, and there’s a joke in this that makes a reference to Fast and the series’ emphasis on “family.” How did that get worked into the script?
Gayden: I wrote that as a tribute to Chris. Obviously, we did not know Helen Mirren [who plays Magdalene ‘Queenie’ Shaw in the Fast films] was going to be cast as Hespera. I just wrote that joke in because a lot of people talked about how we were also about family when the first movie came out. I was like, let’s just lean into this. Also, Chris worked on this movie and I kind of wanted to tip my cap to him. So I put that in as a joke for Chris. Then, we cast Helen Mirren, and we were like, can we still…? And then we were like, yeah, we should do it.
Morgan: It literally is one of the greatest joys of me reading a script ever. Henry sends me an email. He’s like, “Hey, man, I did some work on this thing. Take a look at these pages.’” “I read that in there and I laughed so hard. I’m like, there’s no way that’s staying and then of course, it turns out to be one of the bigger, funnier things. Also, it feels cool because yes, you have Queenie Shaw in there. You also have Djimon [Hounsou] from Furious 7. Slowly but surely, the Fast crew are invading Shazam!.
Does this mean Vin Diesel and The Fast and the Furious exist in the Shazam! universe?
Morgan: I don’t know if it’s that Fast exists in every world, but that Shazam! exists in every world.
Now I want to see Vin Diesel say Shazam! and turn into a superhero.
Gayden: Oh, he would say Shazam! really well. [His] voice would nail it.
Morgan: He absolutely would.
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman cameo is huge. Was that always written into the script or did that come later on?
Morgan: I’ll just say it’s one of my very favorite things that Henry did in the last film. It’s a setup and a payoff that takes two films to take off. Like, in the first film, you have Superman show up, but you only show him from the neck down, right? So the audience now understands the language of the movies that “Listen, we’re gonna have the Justice League folks in there, but you’ll never see their faces because, you know, whatever.” So then we set that up in the beginning of this film, and then play the joke with putting Djimon’s face on her body. So at that point, it feels like the joke’s kind of run its course. Then, at the end when you do that shot and it’s from the head down and you tilt up and you see it’s Gal, the audience goes bananas.
Gayden: The audience is insane.
Morgan: Listen, I’ve been in audiences for a lot of films that audiences love, and there’s designed for moments for them to cheer and stuff like this. [This scene] is one of the biggest cheer moments ever. When you hear it in a packed theater with people who weren’t expecting it, it is thunderous.
Gayden: It’s like a volcanic eruption.
James Gunn and Peter Safran recently announced their new plans for DC. As DC creators, how did you guys find out about that?
Gayden: No one that I knew knew because I don’t think they really wanted to leak it until it was announced. So even though I know Peter really well and he produced the first two Shazam! films and Aquaman and obviously many other things, I believe he wasn’t contractually allowed to tell anyone until they announced it. It was really pleasant to find that out. You know, Chris and I are very close with [Walter Hamada] and love Walt. It was sad to see him go, but it’s really cool to have someone that we both know, and also love working with, come in. And also who worked with Walt. So it was great to hear, but I kind of found out like every other normie.
Morgan: Same here. But listen, towards that future, Peter is an incredible producer, and he’s super collaborative and a really nice guy. He’s the kind of guy where the best idea always wins, and I always want to bet on storytellers who take that approach. And then James Gunn, I mean, come on. From Slither, and then Guardians [of the Galaxy], and I gotta say, I loved his Suicide Squad. I loved it.
Gayden: It’s so good.
Morgan: There was COVID and things and whatever, but man, it was good movie. He’s awesome and listen, I’ve already cooked up the popcorn for whatever they have coming next.
At this point, there’s no third Shazam! film lined up in DC’s upcoming slate. Have there been talks of what is possible for the future?
Gayden: Really informal talks with all of us, but nothing in stone because the movie has to do really well, and then after that, we can really commit to it. I think it just depends on the movie’s success. But you know, those kids aren’t getting any younger, so we’ll know sooner than later.
The mid-credits scene also sees Billy recruited by the Justice Society of America, which is an exciting call out for DC fans. Is that something you’d want to explore in future projects?
Gayden: I’m sure there’s a world where there’s Peacemaker, or whatever James wants to use Shazam in — but that’s really up to them and that will be really fun. But again, we just can’t know anything until then, right?
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