It’s Shazam! Week at The Nerds of Color. And so far, we’ve been incredibly lucky to have been able to chat with stars Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, and Jack Dylan Grazer about their new film Shazam! Fury of the Gods. And it has been a true honor for us because the first Shazam! film was an absolute delight. However, with Fury of the Gods coming to theaters this Friday, the question becomes — will lightning strike twice? Let’s break down the answer for this right now!
I’m really glad Shazam! Fury of the Gods got made. I know Shazam! wasn’t the highest grossing success story in the DCEU canon, but for me, until James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad hit theaters in 2021, it was absolutely the most charming and fun entry in the franchise. So to move forward with a sequel was something I not only wanted, but I think was deserved.
The crew behind the first move has returned, with David F. Sandberg coming back to helm the film, and writer Henry Gayden penning the script once again (but this time partnering with Fast and Furious writer Chris Morgan). However, unfortunately, this time around, the returns have diminished a little bit. Shazam! Fury of the Gods suffers from the Quantumania problem of assuming bigger is better. Ironically for both properties, the filmmakers and studios behind them forgot the charm from their predecessors came from the smaller scale simplicities and lower stakes of their respective first installments. However, unlike Quantumania, Fury of the Gods doesn’t have a performance on par with Jonathan Major’s terrific turn as Kang to compensate for its weaknesses. And the “Paul Rudd Award” for “Likable Leading Character” is also somewhat missing from this installment, when compared to the first.
That said, in the hands of a lesser team Fury of the Gods would be a worse mess. A hodgepodge of random ideas that didn’t all need to be crammed into a single movie. But because Sandberg and team actually do care about these characters, there’s still some charm to spare. It’s just a lot less.
This time around, Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi) is going through a bit of imposter syndrome and a bit of co-dependence on his Shazam-ily. Literally never letting them lead their own lives, and using the superhero obligations to keep them all near him, since he (understandably) has abandonment issues. But all of that is interrupted with the presence of The Daughters of Atlas (Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu) arriving on Earth to take back the power of the gods from the entire Shazam-ily. While all this is happening, Rosa (Marta Millans) just wants Billy to call her “mom,” Pedro (Jovan Armand) is struggling with coming out to his family, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) meets a cute girl in school named Ann (Rachel Zegler), and The Wizard (who is revealed to still be alive) is being held captive by the Daughters.
Like I said: a lot going on in this movie.
Let’s start with the good. If Shazam! was the unexpected amalgamation of DC Comics with Big, then Fury of the Gods is the unexpected amalgamation of DC with Harry Potter and Clash of the Titans. And that’s pretty awesome! There’s a good portion of this movie where Sandberg lets his geek flag fly, calling back to Harryhausen influences, as he incorporates some terrific fantasy elements into the film. There’s minotaurs, unicorns, dragons, harpies, and sentient pens. It’s very neat to see, and you can sense the amount of fun Sandberg and the rest of the cast are having with the concepts. And when you think about it, it’s so perfect for a franchise like Shazam! because not many other comic book heroes get into those sort of family-friendly mythological elements. Getting to see joy of that magnitude on screen from a director playing with an infinite toybox of money and CG is its own reward. And huge props to Sandberg for retaining that big kid heart for a franchise that needs it.
The other huge, terrific addition to the film is Rachel Zegler as Ann, as well as the continuing committed performance of the last film’s MVP, Jack Dylan Grazer. As Ann and Freddy, there’s a sweet puppy love chemistry between Zegler and Grazer. Freddy continues to prove he is the unsung hero of this franchise, with a heart of gold, and the big likable underdog charm that is otherwise missing this time from some of the other chief protagonists in this installment (we’ll get to that soon).
He’s funny, and Zegler bounces off of his natural charisma with that of her own. The sweet and kind, yet conflicted nature of her portrayal of Ann, mixed with Freddy’s nerdy, desperate, but never-annoying energy grounds the over-the-top elements of the movie’s fantasy with humanity. In short, it gives you something to root for, and provides the movie with an emotional core that is otherwise lacking in most other areas (something that the first movie did a lot better).
In addition to Zegler and Grazer, the performances from Mirren and Hounsou are also quite wonderful. Mirren, as expected, brings a great deal of intimidating gravitas to her role as Hespera. But she’s not above delivering terrific comedic timing in scenes where she’s asked to read teenage slang aloud (there’s literally a hilarious moment where she’s reading the nonsensical ramblings of insecure kids composing a hostage note that goes on a bit long, but is actually pretty funny). In short, you get the whole package with her performance, and a multi-dimensional character that’s easy to sympathize with. Hounsou is also given a lot more to do in this film than the first, offering a lot of humor as well, with his unlikely pairing with Grazer for multiple scenes. But he’s also the perfect candidate to give Billy Batson a speech of encouragement, and deploy him for action, when the situation calls for it.
The budget and the visual effects for this movie were also significantly stronger this time around, than they were with the first film, and it shows. The scope of the dragons and the creatures we get at the end are terrific. And a lot of the world building of the Shazam-ily’s cave wouldn’t be possible without some of the amazing effects and set design the crew worked particularly hard on. It’s a joy to see it all on screen; particularly when the film really dips its toes into the mythical aspects of god realms and magical secrets.
Unfortunately however, though there is a lot of fun to be had, and a lot of charm on display, the movie doesn’t exactly work immaculately. And part of the biggest issues with it are rooted in its own whiny protagonist.
This time around Billy/Shazam is so much more grating. Levi and Angel do their best, but at the end of the day, Shazam in this movie comes across as super needy and obnoxious. While we understand completely why Billy has issues with his family leaving him, and insecurities about possibly getting kicked out of the only family home he’s had once he’s 18, he essentially holds his family members hostage with superhero duties, instead of letting them live actual lives for themselves. He prevents Mary from going to college. He complains about Freddy getting a girlfriend. It becomes incredibly overbearing and cloying.
And unfortunately, Levi’s performance does also feed into that. Though his energy is appreciated, it’s a performance that’s a bit desperate for a laugh that never comes. It’s quite loud, and extremely annoying at times. And it’s really not something that gets us to root for him until, perhaps, the very end of the movie, where the true superheroics take place. I wanted more for this character, because he was super sympathetic and very boyishly likable in the first film. But he’s really just annoying in Fury of the Gods.
As much as it pains me to say this too, Lucy Liu’s performance as Kalypso is not much better. It’s a very obnoxiously one-note, mustache-twirling villain whose motivations are incredibly erratic, changing from one second to the next instantly. It doesn’t help that Liu, who is a really strong actor overall, is really overacting in this one. Her inflections, delivery, and over-the-top nature when compared to the more nuanced performances from her fellow newcomers, Mirren and Zegler, feels noticeably amateur for someone as talented as she is. It’s a pity because with stronger direction, I think this could have been a much more menacing villain. But she’s a bit wasted.
To that end, so is the rest of the Shazam-ily honestly. It’s incredibly nice to see Grace Caroline Currey, Ian Chen/Ross Butler, Jovan Armond/D. J. Cotrona, and Faithe Herman/Meagan Good get small moments to shine. But the film really doesn’t utilize them to their fullest potential. And while I appreciate its attempts to give them each an arc, the storylines aren’t very well executed, which means that the actors’ moments to shine aren’t as bright as they could/should be. The Shazam-ily has a lot of terrific chemistry. We saw this play out in the final act of the first film.
But the moments of character development they have in the film are limited to each one looking into the camera and essentially dictating to the audience what it is they want lifelessly. Which all just ends up getting resolved in a short scene at the end. I really looked forward to seeing them grow and get more opportunities to contribute something unique to the ensemble in this one. But it ends up never really happening.
Additionally, they could have tightened up the film by removing some minor plot points, or even moments of minor character development that really have no bearing to the overall story. First, we get MacGuffin after MacGuffin with very little payoff. There’s the staff of The Wizard, then there’s a seed/golden apple, there’s moments when characters like Freddy are treated like MacGuffins, as well. It feels a little unfocused in a “Pirates of the Carribbean 2: compass, chest, heart,” kind of way, which weighs the film down with unnecessary exposition that doesn’t really help.
While the first movie was so light, breezy, and focused, there are long stretches of time where the script has to explain Magical Element A, so we can move on to Magical Element B, and then we explain Magical Element B to help us formulate a plan to get Magical Element C. Nothing feels organic, or really worth investing in from a narrative standpoint.
Then you also smash this up with low emotional stakes that are dictated to you by characters, but end up getting resolved almost instantly, making all that we go through in the film less worth it, given emotional payoff is unearned along with it.
For instance, there’s no scene that appropriately demonstrates this more than one of the bigger final moments of the movie, which includes an appearance from a character completely out of left field to conveniently resolve a narrative moment. It is a literal deus ex machina thrown at us, even though there was really nothing at all setting up that pay off moment, apart from a few throwaway gags.
And that really is a shame, because, had they scaled down, conceptually some of those magical elements or big moments may have been cool on screen, and some of the emotional beats would have had a better impact/true weight.
That being said, much like a movie like Quantumania, the shortcomings of the film don’t necessarily prevent anyone from having a good time. They just never reach the heights of the simple but sweet nature of the first Shazam! In short (surprise, surprise), it plays like your average sequel: bigger, messier, louder, and dumber in many ways. There’s still a lot to enjoy about it: it’s pretty, it’s fun at times, most of the cast is still likable, and there’s still some sweetness left in the franchise. But the movie, and consequently the Shazam! franchise would have benefitted from a more intimate and smaller scope. That’s what made the first film unique and charming.
As such, consider Fury of the Gods to be a pleasant enough, if relatively disappointing follow-up to one of DC’s stronger franchise surprises. Here’s hoping that whatever role Shazam may or may not play in the future of the DCU, we get something a bit tighter, a bit more emotional, and overall a bit more interesting.
Overall Score: B-