Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)
Oh. My. Gods.
Four years ago, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! proved to be a breath of fresh air in the DC Extended Universe, which, at the time, was being criticized for being too bleak and broody. You see, Shazam!, although still kind of dark in its own right, was a fun, uplifting superhero romp about a young foster kid, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who was trying to find his place in the world, hoping to become part of a family, the teen gifted with the ability to transform into a hero (Zachary Levi) when saying the magic word, ‘Shazam!’ The follow-up, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, however, which goes ‘grander,’ loses some of its heart, given its expanded scale and scope; the movie is at its best during its intimate, smaller moments. While still focusing on belonging and finding one’s place, this follow-up looks at the Shazam-fam and how they’ve been using their gifts and abilities to protect the world, with Billy, in particular, suffering from imposter syndrome, finding it hard to cope.
The film opens with sisters Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), two of the daughters of Atlas, who’ve made their way to the earthly realm to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs: a magical staff that was last seen being snapped in two by Levi’s Shazam during the close of the former film. Once the ladies get their hands on the stick, they intend to use its power from within to save their realm, which had its magic cut off by Billy’s wizard friend Djimon Hounsou, who’s apparently still alive — and not reduced to ash, as everybody was led to believe.
Two years have passed since Billy and his family have become ‘heroes,’ and Billy is finding it difficult to deal with the whole superhero thing, the now 17-year-old trying desperately hard to make sense of the crazy situation he’s found himself in. Billy attempts to open up to his pediatrician (P.J. Byrne), who happens to work in an office with a lot of toys (cue a cameo from Sandberg’s Annabelle). Billy also subjects his foster siblings (now his superhero family) to ‘meetings,’ where he breaks down what’s worked on their missions and what hasn’t via a cheesy video presentation he’s put together — we learn that the team has been given the unfortunate moniker The Philly Fiascos by the media. Unsure of himself, Billy has adapted the mantra “all or none,” meaning that the super-family must do everything together, with Batson doubting his ability to make judgment calls or rely solely on his own capabilities and wit when out protecting the people.
It’s not just Billy who’s struggling, though; Mary Bromfield (Grace Caroline Currey) is a little frustrated that her super-chores are keeping her away from having a normal college life; Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman as a child/ Meagan Good in superhero form) just wants to be a kid; Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand without a powerup/ D.J. Cotrona in the suit) is still trying to come to terms with his sexuality; and Eugene Choi (Ian Chen as a tyke/ Ross Butler his superhero counterpart) is attempting to figure out where all the various doors in their lair at The Rock of Eternity lead, labeling and putting signs on each.
Then there’s Billy’s best friend, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer as a crippled kid/ Adam Brody in the spandex), who’s having a blast fighting crime, trying to forge his own identity as a hero, even if that means sneaking out of the house alone to do it behind his super-fam’s back. Freddy also uses his powers to woo a new classmate, Anthea (Rachel Zegler), whom he’s got the hots for. While these are all earthbound problems, things become graver when the daughters of Atlas bring their rage to Philadelphia, which forces the Shazamily to step it up and bring their A-game to save the city and world.
Returning writer Henry Gayden and newcomer Chris Morgan, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019), have injected enough laughs and action into the screenplay, despite the formulaic nature of the narrative. Fortunately, most of the gags and quips land, and the standout action sequences excite and entertain — it’s a breezy watch, and the two-plus hour runtime flies by. But Fury of the Gods doesn’t have the same spark and pizzaz of the original Shazam!, which honestly felt like one of those films I watched growing up as a kid in the 1990s, this one coming across as your typical superhero fare, nothing more, nothing less. But, hey, I had a good time!
Guiding the cape for a second time is director David F. Sandberg, who knows how to mix action and suspense with humor and heart, Shazam! 2 a fun and entertaining ride that’s just as dark and edgy as its predecessor, albeit not as memorable. We’re given a heap of cool, mythical super-hero-esque set pieces, the type you’d expect in a Wonder Woman romp (and, yes, Gal Gadot does appear in a cameo). The best of these bits involves the dragon Ladon, a fearsome salamander made from tree-wood who smashes up half the city. We also have mythological Harryhausen-type monsters rampaging through the metropolis streets (think cyclopes, harpies, manticores, and minotaurs) and an awesome sequence involving a heard of ‘evil’ unicorns, which features some not-so-subtle-yet-hilarious product placement. It all seems a little silly, but the sheer dedication of Sandberg and the entire on-screen team makes everything work, the film landing all the right punches. It helps that the VFX are excellent, despite the budget being significantly smaller than some of the more ‘bankable’ Marvel properties, which have produced some sub-par CGI of late — M.O.D.O.K. comes to mind! Everything is well-designed, and the physical sets, locations, and environments complement the action. And Sandberg knows how to shoot in ways that maximize the talents of his cast and crew, coming from a background in low-budget filmmaking.
As is the case with most sequels, everything is ‘bigger’ in this second outing, even if that doesn’t necessarily translate to ‘better.’ Visually, though, everything has improved, with the overall film being significantly more polished. Even the superhero suits have been given an upgrade, the new get-ups much more refined — those silly glowing chest logos have all been replaced by a sleeker golden lightning bolt, making all the characters look more mature in their butt-kicking gear.
Zachary Levi is a very talented comedian and, once again, gets to showcase his comic chops and timing here playing the wise-cracking superhero body of Billy; granted, Levi still feels as though he’s portraying a 15-year-old teen and not the 17-year-old young adult Batson is supposed to have grown into. With that said, Asher Angel’s screen time as the non-superpowered Billy is reduced, which is a shame as the humanity and emotion he brought to the story is missing this time around, the film not as poignant as its predecessor. Jack Dylan Grazer is still great as Freddy, but without Angel to bounce off of, feels a little goofier here, filmmakers teaming him up with Djimon Hounsou’s Wizard for a large chunk of the adventure. Hounsou is legitimately funny, though, and elevates most of his scenes with humor and his usual gravitas — who knew Djimon Hounsou was so great at comedy?
While Helen Mirren, RED (2010), seems to be having a good time chewing the scenery as the bad-ass Demi-God Hespera, it’s Rachel Zegler who comes across as the most memorable newcomer to the series, the West Side Story (2021) star bringing three-dimensional depth and personality to a rather lusterless role. Lastly, it’s wonderful to see both Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews reprise their roles as the affable and supportive foster parents Rosa and Victor Vásquez, who’d do almost anything for their kids.
They say that lightning never strikes the same place twice, and this can indeed be said about Shazam! Fury of the Gods. The 2019 film was, at the time of release, one of the funniest and freshest superhero movies in recent memory, and while this sequel is a worthy companion piece, it never rises to the same greatness. If anything, there’s a mid-credit and post-credit scene that tease some exciting possibilities, these stingers designed to get audiences geared up for the upcoming James Gunn-led DC Universe, which may turn the tide when it comes to DC’s big screen projects. So, watch this space.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is released through Warner Bros. Australia