Shazam! Fury of the Gods arrives at a curious time for the DC superhero universe. With James Gunn taking over and charting a new path forwards, some of the leftover franchises basically need to prove themselves worthy all over again, not unlike young Billy Batson who had to prove himself worthy of the mantle of Shazam. While hardly a blockbuster, the first Shazam movie was fun, kid wish fulfillment stuff, because who didn’t grow up wishing they could be both an adult and as pohwerful as Superman? Perhaps in a bid to boost the box office numbers and save itself, the sequel boasts more heroes, more villains, at least one wooden dragon, a stampede of Skittle-eating unicorn, and way too many terrible jokes that paint Shazam to be an obnoxious loser we don’t really want to cheer on, much less see continue.
That pains me to say, because the first movie was really enjoyable. And Zachary Levi is fantastic as the bulked-up superhero, the costumed identity of young Billy Batson (Asher Angel). At the end of the last story, Batson shared his god-like powers with his adoptive siblings, creating an entire family of heroes right underneath the noses of their clueless foster parents. There’s some good mileage from the kids playing hero literally beneath their parents’ roof, but giving so many of them power is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s cool to see this all-powerful brat pack in action, but they also become indistinguishable from one another. Their various issues, such as Billy’s insecurities, another’s college hopes, and another’s coping with homosexuality, are given just the slightest attention.
Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and West Side Story breakout Rachel Zegler play the Daughters of Atlas, literal gods returned to claim power that was stolen from them. The central theme of this film is the bond between siblings, and it’s interesting to see the contrasts in these devastatingly powerful sisters and the silly antics of their heroic foes. Other than Levi, whose boyish energy remains infectious, the trio of villainous ladies are the film’s strongest aspect. Mirren, like the true queen that she is, delivers some truly ridiculous lines with commanding authority. Liu is terrifying as the more ambitious middle sister, while Zegler has the most difficult role of all as her character’s allegiances shift between a potential romance with Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer) and getting vengeance for her father.
One smart move was to just completely move Djimon Hounsou’s Wizard fully into comedic territory. Let’s be honest, between these films and Black Adam it’s a fact that he’s TERRIBLE at choosing who to bestow with these powers. He spends much of the film whining that he gave these gifts to a child, or chained up in a prison hoping said child will come to rescue him.
There’s simply too much going on in Fury of the Gods, and that includes a major superhero cameo that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute…probably because it was. The film has endured quite a bit of tinkering, which wouldn’t normally be a problem. Except they’ve miscalculated on how to portray Shazam this time around. We hardly see Billy Batson at all, which means all of the big emotional moments are for the adult Levi…but also the sophomoric jokes that almost never land. We could forgive Shazam’s immature attitude if we saw more of Batson and his personal struggle, but there’s simply no time for it.
Fury of the Gods is overloaded, so while the film is never dull it’s also wildly incoherent. Don’t even bother engaging with all of the mythological nonsense regarding the Daughters of Atlas, and this comes from someone who adores Greek mythology. Even I was bored of the endless exposition. Visually, the special effects have taken a step up, particularly in a dazzling final battle inside a giant dome lit up with atomic fire and super-powered lightning. As the Shazam family (Shazamily??) comes together in the end for a heartfelt moment signifying new beginnings, it reminds you that these characters really do occupy a unique space. They aren’t a team of strangers like the Avengers, Shazam isn’t an angry loner like Batman, and there’s no kingdom to rule. They really are the only true superhero family out there on the big screen (for now, and The Incredibles don’t count), and would probably be a nice all-ages attraction for Gunn’s new DCU. Some of the magic has faded away with this sequel, but all is not lost forever and it could be conjured up again with enough care and attention.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens in theaters on March 17th.