The otherworldly entities featured so prominently in the title of superhero sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods certainly seem to be doing quite a number on the film in the lead-up to its release: star and notorious anti-vaxxer Zachary Levi sent out yet another boneheaded tweet; the film’s red carpet Hollywood premiere was hampered by biblical amounts of rain and flooding; and, most recently, co-star and West Side Story breakout Rachel Zegler declared in an interview that the only reason she agreed to take on the role was because she “desperately” needed a job. Then there’s the matter of new DC Films head James Gunn, who inherited the movie from an administration that had no clear long-term vision, claiming that the upcoming Flash feature will reset the entire universe going forward. In other words, you’re looking at the costliest “no stakes” venture in many a moon, which was precisely both the biggest virtue and hurdle of the 2019 original.
One could never accuse director David F. Sandberg of being all that faithful to the original source material in the first place, going so far as to change the titular character’s name because, oh yeah, Marvel already has a Captain Marvel running around and doing hero shit. The emphasis was always on familial bonds, a thematic sticking point that the seemingly eternal Fast & Furious franchise has now turned into a colossal joke. That Fury of the Gods boasts a writer from that very series, Chris Morgan, should clue viewers in to its essential tenor, where platitudes about brotherly love — set in the city of Brotherly Love; how’s that for symbolism? — butt heads with big action set pieces and a whole lot of quippy quips.
2019’s Shazam! actually wasn’t a bad film, with Sandberg bringing a playfulness that served the material well, even going the ‘80’s Amblin/Spielberg route in delivering both kid-friendly scares and emotional earnestness, two qualities also present in the sequel. Billy Baston (Asher Angel) was an emotionally-stunted teenager kicked around from one foster home to the next before finally arriving at the Vasquez homestead, where he found love and support from both his nurturing foster parents and a ragtag band of “siblings.” Oh, and a magical wizard (Djimon Honsou) gave him the power of the Gods, because he sensed Billy had the heart necessary to use them in the name of good. Billy, in turn, shared them with his new brothers and sisters, and with a bellowing of the titular word summoning their powers, they turned into full-fledged adults — but saddled with the same juvenile brains. Perhaps it’s that dissonance that made the various goings-on of Shazam! feel a tad more organic and, quite frankly, tolerable, watching literal man- (and woman)-children figure out the best way to save humanity, instead of figurative man-children who just need to grow the fuck up.
Fury of the Gods finds the Vasquez clan still up to their superhero shenanigans, but not as respected as they could be by the city they call home, with news outlets dubbing them The Philly Fiascos. Billy is trying to keep his new family a cohesive unit through it all, but as independent youths thirsty for their own individual experiences, that’s easier said than done, with little brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) proving especially rebellious. Yet they will have to learn to work together if they want to defeat their latest foes, a trio of vicious sisters and literal Gods who will stop at nothing to gain back the powers that were stolen from them at the hands of the wizard. This trio is made up of Helen Mirren (as Hespera), Lucy Liu (as Kalypso), and the aforementioned Zegler (as Anthea), all slumming it in roles as flat as the photography around them.
Given all of that narrative gobbledygook, and the fact that superhero film fatigue is indeed real in 2023, it helps immensely that the majority of Fury of the Gods has tongue planted firmly in cheek when it comes to its more fantastical elements — there’s nothing worse than a belabored, self-serious superhero treatment, so the winking breeziness of the Shazam!s is appreciated. On the other hand, it also makes it near impossible to care about anything happening on screen at any given moment, even as viewers are likely to genuinely laugh more than a few times. At least, the ungodly — though apparently now standard — two-plus hours thankfully move at a clip. And despite any opinions you might bring to the film of Levi the man, Levi the actor is once again so puppy-dog earnest in his portrayal of Shazam/Billy that it’s hard not to be mostly charmed, despite the inanity of it all.
On the filmmaking front, Sandberg is also to be commended for his use of actual sets and costumes, bringing a surprising tactility to the film’s visual design that’s sorely lacking from the likes of Marvel’s digital wasteland (though what does it say about cinema writ large that we are forced to consider this as worthy of praise?). Unfortunately, like everything else Marvel and superhero-adjacent, the big climactic battle takes place in the dark, is ass-ugly, and its action is nearly impossible to follow. And then there’s also a Big Cameo at film’s end that completely undoes everything that occurred prior, just in case viewers didn’t find the material consequence-free enough already. In fairness, Shazam! Fury of the Gods isn’t likely to inspire such titular rage in viewers, but that’s mostly because it isn’t doing enough to warrant any kind strong response at all.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.