DC hopes lighting strikes twice with this sequel to their hit 2019 film, but this is more of a light drizzle.
If only there were a word I could scream that would turn me into a superhero. I wouldn’t fight crime or fly in the heavens above. Instead, I would run really fast until time went backward. Then I would sprint into the DC Film offices circa 2020 and yell, “Please do not make Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Nobody needs this!” Alas, I have no such power. So, here we are.
Director David F. Sandberg and the main lightning bolt-throwing ensemble return for the sequel. Sandberg showed real creative chops and ingenuity on shoestring budgets with his spooky Lights Out short and feature-length update. He continued that streak with the better than it needed to be intro to franchise filmmaking, Annabelle: Creation. However, as his budgets grow, he’s getting increasingly lost in the chaos.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods wants to be a movie that builds off the themes of its predecessor, a hit for the studio back in 2019. The original is surprisingly raw for a superhero riff on Big. It deals with the traumas of parental abandonment and the desperate feeling of wanting somewhere to belong. By film’s end, young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) finds his new family at a foster home run by saintly parental figures Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans).
Unfortunately, a stable home life and loving family don’t immediately undo feelings of abandonment and loneliness that built for years. As a result, Shazam! Fury of the Gods begins with a grown-up superhero version of Batson, played by Zachary Levi, sitting in his pediatrician’s office discussing his Imposter Syndrome. He doesn’t feel deserving of the superpowers he now possesses, thanks to a cool Wizard dude played by Djimon Hounsou. The subtext is clear, though. He may be saying powers, but what he means is the love of his foster parents and siblings. (The siblings all have Shazammy powers, too, by the way.)
One can tell this is the emotional direction Sandberg wants to lean into, but the script and studio have other ideas. Since this is a sequel, it needs not one, not two, but rather three (kinda) villains. They’re the daughters of the Titan Atlas, played by Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler. Mirren seems happy to be there for the check. Liu is at least trying to bring in some Big Bad energy. Zegler, on the other hand, despite already being an award-winning actor fresh out of high school, absolutely flounders.
The movie gives her nothing to do except immediately fall in love with the nerdy, Gremlins t-shirt wearing Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), and while vaguely concerned her sisters are up to no good. I’m still keeping my Zegler stock. After all, she was radiant in Spielberg’s West Side Story. Hopefully, this is just a tiny blemish in her filmography.
One can tell…the emotional direction Sandberg wants to lean into, but the script and studio have other ideas.
The sisters come to our world to find the magic staff that Batson broke at the end of the last film. They plan to zap the Shazam Family’s powers away from them and plant the Tree of Life in the middle of the Phillies ballpark. This might make a doubleheader less enjoyable, especially since the tree spurts out random deadly creatures from Greek mythology, including cyclops and the most dangerous of all, unicorns.
The idea that unicorns are actually terrifying killing machines is one of the only enjoyably infectious ideas in the movie. The way Hounsou whispers, “Unicorns do not love you back,” is a line reading I will quote until the day I die. Unfortunately, that good will evaporates when it’s revealed to be a setup for a bizarre Skittles commercial. Yes, a character says, “Taste the Rainbow.” Turns out, as blatant product placement, it tastes quite icky.
The huge cast of good guys also gets forgotten in the script. There are six kids in the ragtag group of orphans turned magic word-spouting superheroes. By the end of two feature-length films, I can confidently name one of them. There’s no time spent on development or wants or anything involving these teenagers except for our main guy Billy his superhero enthusiast foster brother Freddie. Despite his powers, Freddie’s main objectives in the movie are saying witty things and somehow winning the heart of an ancient Titan’s daughter.
It’s another case of the “Comic Book Movie Franchise Monkey’s Paw.” It’s a deal talented filmmakers like Sandberg make with either DC or Marvel. They get paid millions to make blockbuster studio films, but because of needing to fit into a multi-year TV and film timeline, there’s no fun or originality to be found in the films. So Shazam! Fury of the Gods must make time for a major DC superhero to arrive just in time and to tie back into HBO’s Peacemaker. Because, of course, studios can’t just create a movie that stands on its own.
Even more cynically, there’s something off about all the pop culture references made here. Batson refers to Hounsou’s facial hair as “Hagrid’s beard.” He calls Lucy Liu “Khaleesi” as she rides a dragon in the climactic battle. He also jokingly calls himself “Saruman” at one point. All these dumb references happen to be from properties owned by Warner Brothers studios. They’re just waiting for audiences to fire them up on the HBO Max app when they get home.
If you look past the derivative script, the insane Skittles product placement, and the whole HBO Max infomercial vibe, there’s still a small static charge of excitement in Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Levi, who should get off social media, is a charming actor who nails the earnest and clumsy nature of a teenager in a grown superhero man’s body. Hounsou also brings real gravitas, but he can only do so much with a nothing role. In a film about being OK with who you are, the movie never feels comfortable with itself. No magic word can make it come to life.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods disrupts weather systems in theatres everywhere starting on March 17.