The Pitch: While Batman, Superman, and the rest of the Justice League defend the world at large, local hero Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and his “fam” of fellow foster kids (including Jack Dylan Grazer’s acerbic bestie Freddy Freeman) defend the city of Philadelphia with godlike powers acquired from the now-broken staff of a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou).
Sure, when they shout “Shazam!” they grow to Grecian proportions as superpowered adults (most notably, Zachary Levi as Billy’s beefed-up counterpart). But their day-saving abilities are spotty at best, leading to the town referring to them as the “Philly Fiascos.” What’s more, Billy feels his foster family growing apart, and as he grows closer to 18, he’s feeling more than a bit of impostor syndrome.
It couldn’t come at a worse time for Philly, really: Turns out the staff from which they got their powers was stolen by the Wizard from the god Atlas, and his powerful daughters — Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler), would like to take it back, please and thank you. And before you can squabble about whether or not these new villains have a point, you learn they’re ready to annihilate the world with that power. No need for moral ambiguity in our superhero flicks!
The Gods of Tedium: 2019’s Shazam! was a comparative breath of fresh air amid the dour, dreary vibes of the DCEU by that point. It’s a kid-friendly adventure that had just as much in common with an Amblin Entertainment picture as it did something like Aquaman or Justice League., buoyed by a welcome stab of cosmic horror courtesy of Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation maestro David F. Sandberg.
And indeed, Fury of the Gods continues in that tradition, one more concerned with quipping kids in beefed-up supersuits than grumbling musings on the failings of humanity. But that’s a layup in this age of giddy, bubbling Marvel pictures, and even the new James Gunn-run DC universe is likely to pep things up with a bit more Skittles-flavored excitement than the Snyder era.
So why does Fury of the Gods feel so empty?
Really, it comes down to the twin problems of sequelitis and the suffocating bloat of modern superhero filmmaking, twin villains who succeed mightily in thwarting Sandberg and his stalwart team of filmmakers. Shazam!‘s heart fell in its Outsiders-like exploration of Billy Batson, a lost boy who stumbles into power and has to grow up fast to handle it responsibly, while also learning to accept the new home (and family) that accepts him with open arms.
Here, Levi’s motormouthed crusader opines early on to a pediatrician he treats like a therapist that he’s suffering from “impostor syndrome,” and bits and bobs of the first act play into that nicely. After the climax to the first film gifted his numerous foster siblings with similar powers, he’s suddenly the leader of a team, one which would much rather do their own thing, making him feel abandoned once more. It’s an intriguing idea, one that plays into the themes Sandberg set up so capably in the first.
But then the Daughters of Atlas show up, and all that interesting groundwork gets swept aside in favor of a bland, repetitive adventure that ticks all the four-quadrant boxes of a typical comic book joint, just aged down for the 13-and-up crowd. The humor is as flat and featureless as the CG, as we watch a rubbery Levi facsimile float and punch and stammer through one belabored gag after another.
There are some welcome attempts at cleverness in the middle act, especially as some of the Shazam crew navigate the ongoing mysteries of their expansive new lair and struggle to save the day without the aid of their powers. But once it gets down to the punching, it’s all CG body doubles and weightless hell-creatures. We even get a good old-fashioned skybeam; between that, and a villain who gets captured on purpose, it’s like Shazam! 2 flew into theaters all the way from 2012.
A smarter script (co-penned by Fast and Furious scribe Chris Morgan, who works in a nod to his favorite franchise, leaving you to wonder just who the hell plays Gisele and Mama Shaw in this universe) would have leaned further into the parallels between the Shazamily and the Daughters. After all, they’re two squabbling families struggling to figure out how to handle the weight of their power.
To her credit, the 77-year-old Mirren brings a welcome haughtiness to her role as an arrogant demigod, doing her level best to buy the physicality required of a baddie like this; she can make all kinds of gobbledygook sing when she delivers it. Zegler and Liu suffer a bit more, the former stuck as basically a version of Maria from West Side Story with reality-twisting Doctor Strange powers, and the latter as a scowling tyrant who grows into the team’s most immediate threat.
Well, That Just Happened: The humor suffers even more, Fury of the Gods becoming one of the more cringe-inducing action comedies in recent years. As a motormouthed teen superhero, Billy Batson is no Peter Parker; his one gag is to overexplain himself awkwardly, whether stammering through a turn of phrase or explaining away his teen crush on Wonder Woman.
The dialogue stinks of teens written by adults who have no idea how teens talk: Levi drops phrases like “flex” and “fam” with all the artificiality of an AI sneaking into a high school to investigate the speech patterns of human children. The other kids get even less to do, their arcs boiled down to one or two traits given maybe 30 seconds of screentime apiece: one is an adult who wants to go to college, one loves Skittles, another doesn’t know how to tell the others he’s gay, etc.
The only one who really makes it work is Glazer, who, now freed from the first film’s role of envious normie sidekick, gets to come into his own as a wimpy nerd who gets to live out his power fantasies, and fears having that taken away. It’s remarkably natural work, and it’s very telling that he gets the bulk of the screen time compared to the far-blander Angel. When the film sidelines him and Hounsou in a dungeon, they’re an entertaining enough double act. One wishes the film was more about their stuff instead.
The Verdict: Fury of the Gods tries to recapture what made the first Shazam! a disarming breath of fresh air, but it just can’t quite do it. Even as the film’s climax gestures towards some actual life-changing consequences for our heroes, audiences need not fret: Everything will go back to normal by the end, we’ll get a couple of unwanted cameos, and we’ll even set up some fresh new adventures in a mid-credits scene.
By the end, more than two hours will have passed without note or emotion, and we’ll be left wondering how much longer these superhero flicks will be spinning their wheels. Here’s hoping Gunn has a plan for DC’s cinematic output, and that it’ll start to materialize by the time these lingering vestiges of former DC prez Walter Hamada’s run are burned off.
Where’s It Playing? Shazam! Fury of the Gods turns its exclamation point into a shrug of an ellipsis in theaters everywhere on March 17th.