SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS Review: Superhero Action First, Family Dynamics Last

Zachary Levi, Grace Caroline Currey, and Helen Mirren star in the latest from D.C., directed by David F. Sandberg.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS Review: Superhero Action First, Family Dynamics Last

Almost four years ago, Shazam!, the first big-screen appearance of DC’s longtime superhero, arrived in multiplexes as an antidote, deliberately or not, to the grimness, dimness, and darkness of the Frank Miller-inspired Snyderverse and its brooding, borderline nihilistic demigods.

Centered on an orphaned teen, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), and his alter ego, a kindler, gentler, goofier iteration of Superman, Shazam! delivered a family-oriented, coming-of-age superhero adventure, as delightfully charming as it was unironically earnest. It was — and remains to this day — a much more optimistic, welcoming spin on DC’s superheroes.

Despite positive box-office returns and widespread critical approval of Shazam!, a sequel wasn’t inevitable. Far from it, apparently.

After the better part of two years, Warner Bros. execs finally gave the go-ahead for a second entry, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, once again directed by David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation, Lights Out). Unfortunately, Shazam’s story probably won’t extend to a third film or a ongoing, standalone franchise, the inevitable result of a studio shakeup and a systems-wide reboot promised by the new co-CEOs of DC Studios, writer-director James Gunn (Peacemaker, The Suicide Squad, The Guardians of the Galaxy) and longtime producer Peter Safran.

For now, fans of "the Big Red Cheese" will have to content themselves with Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a mildly disappointing letdown from its noticeably more satisfying predecessor. Trading in the family-focused dynamics of Shazam!, the sequel splits its focus between Billy Batson’s broad-shouldered alter ego (Zachary Levi), as he suffers from a personal crisis involving self-doubt (imposter syndrome), generational trauma (abandonment by his biological family), and an overly clingy attitude toward his foster siblings, and the Daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Oscar winner Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), released from magical imprisonment after several millennia thanks (or rather no thanks) to Billy’s direct actions in the first film (breaking a magically powered staff).

That staff becomes the object the central characters obsessively pursue throughout the sequel, Hespera and Kalypso so they can restore the shattered realm of the gods and get their revenge on the humans who revolted and overthrew the gods long ago, Shazam, so he can keep it away from Hespera and Kalypso and save, if not the world, then the corner of the DC universe they call home (i.e., Philadelphia). As a teen trapped in a superhero’s body, Billy suffers from a slight case of dual or split personality, reserved, slightly morose, anxious as the non-superpowered Billy and an awkward, bumbling, slightly clueless superhero with pretensions of grandeur and de facto leadership of the Shazam family.

While Shazam! Fury of the Gods runs through all-too-familiar set pieces, starting with Hespera and Kalypso’s theft of the broken staff from a poorly guarded museum in Athens, to a handful of superhero battles in and around Philadelphia, culminating with a moment of self-sacrificing desperation that lasts all of five or six minutes, it leaves most of Billy’s adopted family on the sidelines or in minor supporting roles. Only Billy’s best friend, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), gets a subplot involving his new high-school crush, Anthea (Rachel Zegler).

It’s as sweet, good-natured, and sincere as anything in the first film, though it doesn’t take long before Freddie’s subplot merges with the central plot. (The trailers give away the how, but it’s something best discovered on its own without spoilers.)

With Angel’s Billy almost forgotten and Levi’s iteration front-and-center for most of Shazam! Fury of the Gods’s running time, the central friendship between Billy and Freddie barely gets any attention. The first film leaned heavily on a superpowered teen learning the ins and outs of his new abilities along with their limitations.

Minus that particularly rich source for humor, Shazam! Fury of the Gods relies on the title character shedding more than a few IQ points when he becomes a superhero, stumbling, bumbling, and harrumphing his way through property-destroying superheroics or valiantly trying to rally his superhero siblings into following one daft, ill-conceived idea after another.

It’s not exactly exhausting, but it certainly feels like co-writers Henry Gayden (Shazam!) and Chris Morgan (The Fast & the Furious series) took the easy way out, throwing as many big-budget action sequences into the script whenever they ran into a story- or character-related problem. Then again, they simply could have been following studio mandates (i.e., bigger equals better).

If so, then the fault lies with studio executives who misunderstood what made Shazam! an unqualified success: a balanced contrast between Billy as a non-powered teen and Billy as a superpowered teen in an adult body, humor driven by character conflict and interaction, and an emphasis on the colorful dynamics between Billy and his siblings.

What happens next — assuming anything happens at all — remains pure speculation. Until the powers-that-be decide to share their plans for Shazam’s future in the revamped DC cinematic universe (if any), the Big Red Cheese’s fans will have to content themselves with Shazam! Fury of the Gods and its occasional, fitful glimpses of what could and should have been.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens, only in movie theaters, throughout the known universe on Friday, March 17. Visit the official site for tickets and showtimes.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods

  • David F. Sandberg
  • Henry Gayden
  • Chris Morgan
  • Bill Parker
  • Helen Mirren
  • Zachary Levi
  • Meagan Good
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Adam BrodyAsher AngelChris MorganDavid F. SandbergDjimon HounsouHelen MirrenHenry GaydenJack Dylan GrazerLucy LiuMeagan GoodRachel ZeglerShazam: Fury of the GodsZachary LeviBill ParkerActionAdventureComedy

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