‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods‘ Review: The Gods Are Right to Be Furious
The creators of Shazam! Fury of the Gods faced a conceptual dilemma they never quite solved. The point and pleasure of the first Shazam! was watching a dumb teenager figure out how to be a superhero: Testing the limits of his powers, tentatively trying (and often failing) to do good. But by the end of movie, the kid had gotten the hang of the superhero game. He defeated a super-villain, saved Philadelphia, found the birth mother who’d abandoned him as a child, and gave a piece of his powers to his five foster siblings. So what’s left to do in the sequel?
Not much, it seems. Shazam! Fury of the Gods is just sort of there, coasting on the residual good vibes and talented cast of its much-superior predecessor. It makes a few half-hearted attempts to give Billy Batson (Asher Angel) a new personal dilemma to overcome, namely his subconscious fear that he will be abandoned by his family a second time. But Billy appears onscreen in Fury of the Gods so infrequently — he has maybe five important scenes — that it’s easy to forget his story, and even harder to care when you do remember.
Instead, Zachary Levi’s Shazam — Billy’s alter ego when he says a magic word and transforms into an indestructible superhero — is the one in almost every single minute in this sequel. When the Billy/Shazam dynamic works, as it did in the first movie, it can be the basis for a very charming coming-of-age comedy. When it doesn’t, as in Fury of the Gods, it feels like you’re just watching an immature dope in a cape. (Shazam so severely lacks the wisdom of Solomon — one of the six super-powers that make up the acronym “SHAZAM” — that the film actually treats it as a running joke.) But conceding your hero (and, by inference, his movie) is kind of dumb is no substitute for actually making the character (and the film) a bit more clever.
Instead of awkward teenage fumbling, Fury of the Gods’ focus is an labyrinthian superhero plot — complete with an actual mythological labyrinth — about the Daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu). These ancient goddesses were supposedly banished from Earth eons ago by the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who gave Billy Batson his power. Just in time for this sequel, they have very conveniently been allowed to return to the modern DC Comics Universe, where they are out for revenge. They steal the Wizard’s staff, which supposedly restores their magic abilities (although they seem to have plenty of power before they get their hands on the staff) and then they set their sights on the Wizard’s current champion, Shazam, and his super-powered family.
The prospect of watching Helen Mirren beat the snot out of Zachary Levi must have looked irresistible on paper; it certainly sounds fun to me. So why is the end result so lifeless? Maybe because Shazam and Hespera’s occasional skirmishes are so slathered in weightless CGI that it could be any two people punching each other. Or maybe Fury of the Gods’ script invests so little thought or energy into the human characters, and spends so little time in a recognizable real world that there’s basically nothing on the line here for anyone, including the audience. If the story throws out a subplot for one of the supporting characters — say Billy’s older sister Mary’s (Grace Fulton) desire to go to college — you can rest assured the film will completely forget it before the big climax. (At least Mirren seems to be having a little fun in her scenes; Lucy Liu looks hopelessly bored. ).
Just about the only person who comes off well in this film is Jack Dylan Grazer, who stole the first Shazam as Billy Batson’s brainy, wisecracking foster brother Freddy. In Fury of the Gods, Freddy is the only human character onscreen with significant screen time, and he gets a few warm scenes with West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler as the new girl in school, and then a bunch of amusing moments with Hounsou’s Wizard (who pretty definitively died in the first Shazam, but it’s comics, so whatever). If you can improve a movie as crummy as Shazam! Fury of the Gods for a few minutes the way Grazer does, you should have a bright future in Hollywood.
Whether Shazam himself has much of a few in the new DC Universe that’s being built by the company’s new CEOs James Gunn and Peter Safran (who is a producer on the Shazam series) remains unresolved. Before Fury of the Gods, I would have hoped so; I liked the first movie quite a bit. But this really is one of the more disappointing sequels Hollywood has produced in the last decade. At one point, when the Daughters of Atlas have the Shazam family on the run, Billy tries to get the Wizard to take back his powers; he desperately wants out of their deal. That same energy permeates a lot of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which often plays like it only exists because of contractual obligations that its creators are not terribly excited to fulfill.
-Shazam! Fury of the Gods arrives in theaters just a few weeks after Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and the films share a strange amount in common. Both are sequels to fairly grounded and lighthearted comedies that jettison most of the relatable elements that made their predecessors successful in favor of a lot of generic special effects and fights. As an avowed fan of comics and superheroes, I watch these things and I wonder “Is this what people really want out of these movies? To watch a bunch of CGI effects with zero human emotions or stakes?” I certainly don’t.