Shazam! Fury of the Gods Loses the Magic of the Original
The Shazam family gets overshadowed by Zachary Levi’s quips.
David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! indulged in that great fantasy every kid has: what would it be like to have superpowers? The 2019 movie was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly dark DCEU, a throwback superhero movie that recaptured the sincerity and schlock of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, and channeled the mischievous glee of an ‘80s kid adventure. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) might have all the powers of the gods when he transforms into Shazam (Zachary Levi), but at least he was going to have fun with it.
Four years later, we find out the aftermath of what happens when a wizard grants Billy Batson superpowers — all he has is anxiety and an annoying personality.
In the aftermath of Shazam, Billy Batson became Earth’s Champion, and he and his foster siblings have come into their own as a crime-fighting team. Though many dub them the “Philadelphia Fiascos,” they’ve got a good thing going as the city’s resident heroes saving citizens, (mostly) stopping disasters, and building a sweet pad out of the Rock of Eternity lair.
But Billy feels the group already starting to drift apart. Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody in superhero form) is eager to be a hero on his own and Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) yearns for normal college life. Meanwhile, Darla (Faithe Herman, Meagan Good in super form), Eugene (Ian Chen, Ross Butler in super form), and Pedro (Jovan Armand, D. J. Cotrona in super form) all have their minds elsewhere. With Billy’s 18th birthday approaching — meaning he’ll graduate out of the foster care system — his abandonment fears resurface, causing him to desperately try to keep the family even tighter together.
But those issues are quickly tossed out the window with the arrival of the three vengeful goddesses Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler) who have been unleashed on the human world thanks to Billy’s thoughtless actions. Armed with the wizard’s staff, they have the power to take away the Shazam Family’s abilities — and unleash hell on Earth.
For better or for worse, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is more of the same from Sandberg, who returns to helm the sequel to his wildly underrated 2019 film. For better? The charming ensemble that is the Shazam Family, whose closeness was one of the sweetest parts of the first film and who (supposedly) take the spotlight in the sequel. For worse? Everything Zachary Levi does.
In a baffling move, Fury of the Gods doubles down on Levi and shifts focus away from the family of foster siblings (apart from Grazer’s Freddy Freeman, who continues to be the standout star of the Shazam films). It creates an imbalance that the first movie so deftly kept at bay; the sincerity that made the original Shazam! such a delight now teetering into the dreaded smugness of so many Marvel movies. Billy is in Shazam form for the majority of the film, robbing us of the rapport between Asher and Grazer that made the first movie such a wonderful watch. And Levi doesn’t even have Grazer to bounce off of (or, perhaps, keep him dialed back), as Freddy’s attempts to strike out on his own end up with him mainly sharing the screen with Zegler (who is sweet, but kind of a non-presence) and Djimon Hounsou’s wizard Shazam.
It’s no surprise that Grazer’s subplot is the best, with Freddy the only one to have something akin to a character arc in the film. (Billy’s abandonment issues are just kind of talked about?) Freddy’s the one with the typical superhero double life of the bullied kid, the tender love story, the hubris of flaunting his powers, and the pathos of losing them. Grazer is a bit more manic this time around, but he still manages to be an endearing reminder of what we loved about Shazam! In the first place.
But what of the Levi problem? The charisma the star showed in the first film seems to have morphed into a light impression of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool — the childishness far too pronounced compared to Angel’s more brooding teen Billy. Indeed, in the few scenes that Angel has, he portrays more emotional nuance and turmoil than Levi does in all the scenes where he complains about his anxiety and abandonment issues to the miraculously patient Mary, or to a random doctor. The comedy of Fury of the Gods seems to be mostly foisted on Levi’s shoulders, and his hacky delivery only makes the humor feel tedious.
The rest of the cast doesn’t get enough screen time to make much of an impression, apart from Good’s joyful performance as the Skittles-obsessed Darla. Mirren does her best with a rather flat villain role, but Liu strangely phones it in as the more antagonistic Kalypso — most of her line readings sound like she’s just seen the script for the first time. The sisters are sorely underdeveloped (they hate humans, just because…?) to the point that even Mark Strong’s cartoonish Dr. Thaddeus Sivana of the first film feels more fleshed out.
While Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan’s script is sadly rote (there is not one, but two MacGuffins in this movie), Sandberg, for his part, brings back the same zest and weirdness that made the first film a pleasant surprise. There are those random shocks of B-movie gore that call back to Raimi, delightfully silly background characters, and the odd camera trick to keep things fresh. But whereas the first Shazam! felt like a refreshing throwback to the kid adventures of the ‘80s and the superhero movies of the early 2000s, Shazam! Fury of the Gods feels like a creaky leftover of the mid-2010s. Everything looks a little more washed out, Levi’s jokey delivery is tired, and we’ve all had enough of MacGuffins. The magic is slowly being lost. Maybe it’s better that this era of the DC universe has come to an end.