Film Review – Shazam! Fury of the Gods
Shazam! Fury of the Gods
When Shazam! (2019) was released, it felt like a breath of fresh air. After the dark and brooding Batman v Superman (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016), it appeared that Warner Brothers and DC forgot that comic book movies could actually be fun. Shazam! was earnest in its approach – tackling themes of family, responsibility, and making the most of one’s potential. It imagined a world where a kid could say a magical word and transform into a powerful being – able to fly, possess super strength, and even control lightning. Part of the fun was in seeing Zachary Levi play a dual role. Not only did he have to be the superhero, he also encompassed the naïveté of the young kid, Billy Batson (Asher Angel). It’s a tricky balancing act, but Levi and the rest of the production pulled it off. The result felt like a course correction for WB/DC.
Which makes the sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023), so mind boggling. Everyone is back, including director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Henry Gayden (with Chris Morgan joining). However, the magic is no longer there. The heart and soul that made the first entry a success is missing this time around, in favor for a bigger, louder, and messier affair. The constant tongue in cheek jokes, pop culture references, and incessant winking at the camera drains the stakes. The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction – the lighthearted tone has become obnoxious. How are we supposed to believe what is happening on screen when no one seems to believe it themselves? How is a giant fire breathing dragon supposed to be a threat when it’s paired with jokes about Game of Thrones?
The notion of “family” is once again covered, but not nearly as fleshed out. We are reunited with Shazam/Billy’s extended foster family – guardians Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) as well as siblings Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Darla (Faith Herman), Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) and their superhero alter egos (Adam Brody, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Meagan Good, Currey). Years have passed, with each member starting to grow into their own person. Being part of a “team” is not always a priority. There are some interesting bits here, as we see characters grappling with their own anxieties, issues, and blossoming identities. Saving the world and impressing a high school crush carry equal importance. Sadly, none of this is developed beyond the surface level, as the plot heavy narrative takes away from the character dynamics.
Speaking of dysfunctional families, our antagonists are a trio of sisters – Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler). Daughters of the god Atlas, the sisters have come to Earth in search of the staff that the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) used to give Billy Batson his powers in the previous installment. Why do the sisters want the staff? To do bad stuff, of course! And so, Shazam and the rest of the family must band together once more to take down the sisters and bring peace back to Earth. What follows is a CGI-infused light show, with characters staring off into the distance or striking a cool pose. At this point, the superhero genre has been on the big screen for quite some time. Fury of the Gods feels weirdly old fashioned. Actors are required to stick their hands out with an intense look on their faces, as pixels and streaks of color go flying around them. Anthea’s powers allow her to manipulate environments like a jigsaw puzzle – similar to that of Dr. Strange. And yet, Rachel Zegler (one of the most talented young actors working today) is tasked with simply standing in place like a statue.
There isn’t a sense of awe or revelation. These are people who can perform feats that once belonged only to the imagination, but here feels limp and lifeless. An opening scene has the Shazam family saving numerous people from a collapsing bridge. What is meant to leave us amazed ends up being bland. Each member zooms past the screen, picking up civilians one at a time and bringing them to safety. Sadly, the effect doesn’t hit with any resonance. Monsters and other mythical creatures have a rubbery, flimsy look to them, the result of unconvincing computer aided imagery. There’s a lack of ambition and creativity – not just in the set pieces but during conversations. One of the funnier details involves Hespera continuously popping out of nowhere. Shazam could be going about his business and will only notice her presence when she walks into view. It’s as though the world outside the camera frame doesn’t exist until it appears within our sight line.
Zachary Levi and the rest of the cast do their darnedest to keep things afloat, despite working with material that isn’t as confident as the first film. Before, Levi made us believe that a young kid could exist inside of a superhero. That doesn’t play as well this time. We learn that Billy is nearing adult age, and his days within foster care could be numbered. That’s an avenue worth exploring. However, the writing and direction has Levi still acting like a little kid. His “Gee, Golly” attitude doesn’t work as believably, because the character is now older. Sure, being seventeen still comes with immaturity and a lot of growing up left to do, but I’d like to assume that most kids have moved on from the wide-eyed innocence of youth. He’s almost old enough to attend college, for crying out loud!
With the news of James Gunn being hired to help facilitate the DC superhero slate, and the announcement that Henry Cavill will no longer be reprising his role as Superman, it would seem that this batch of heroes – including Shazam and his family – are in a state of limbo. Shazam! Fury of the Gods acts as an awkward transition between the past and the future. With its mismanaged cameos and tasteless product placement, this took a very good first film and pulled the rug out from under it.