‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ Is an Electrifying Spectacle – Review
In the current comic book movie landscape, discounting the current DC rebrand, DC and Marvel have clearly established their niches. DC tends to lean heavily into the gritty, dark side of superheroes while Marvel is known for bombastic action scenes and quippy comedy. In 2019, Shazam! disrupted that neat divide by focusing heavily on jokes and fun, essential for an accurate adaptation of the comics. In an interview with SFX Magazine actor Zachary Levi even recently positioned his character as a family-friendly version of Marvel’s “subversive” class clown Deadpool.
Faithfully translating that sense of youthful wonder from the classic comics to the big screen is where the original Shazam! film excelled. But every kid has to grow up some time, and after the tepid reception to the DC Extended Universe’s last entry Black Adam, comic fans may wonder if the franchise has a spark of life left.
Don’t be shocked, but the Big Red Cheese manages to save the day again.
Director David F. Sandberg and the cast of the 2019 movie return to the alternate DCEU version of Philadelphia for Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Years have passed since Billy (Asher Angel) gained the ability to harness the powers of the gods as his alter ego Shazam (Zachary Levi) and shared those powers with his foster siblings. The “Shazamily” are now an established presence in Philly, though the novice heroes make headlines more for the destruction they cause than the lives they save.
Although the six super-powered siblings do their best to stick to their rule of only saving the day as a group, this becomes increasingly difficult as daily life pulls the family in different directions. For example, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) seems more interested in her studies and job than Billy’s hero debrief meetings, while Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is preoccupied with solo heroics or his new love interest. As if struggling to keep his family together wasn’t tough enough, the vengeful Daughters of Atlas (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler) have come to Earth to hunt down the heroes and reclaim the magic powers stolen from them long ago by the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Compared to the relatively compact and focused story of the first Shazam! film, there is a lot more plot crammed into Fury of the Gods. However, the film fully commits to each of its plot lines and keeps a quick pace that never drags under unnecessary or filler scenes.
While Fury of the Gods delivers plenty of laughs, pop culture references and nods to its source material (Captain Marvel Junior, anyone? Tawky Tawny?), this time around Sandberg has dialed back the humor for a more mature and slightly darker tone. Within the first few minutes alone, the director’s horror sensibilities come out to play with a chaotic and frenetic opening scene. This moderate tonal shift is a benefit to the action sequences. The threat that Billy and family face this time around is on a much grander, world-ending scale and though rapid-fire jokes felt natural the intimate punchouts of the first film, that same level of snark would likely have detracted from the intensity of the fights.
Fury of the Gods instead shifts its focus to revel in visual spectacle. There is plenty of magical and superhero action spread throughout the two hour and ten minute runtime. Since the relationships with the majority of the characters have already been largely established (i.e. Billy and his foster family), time that would otherwise have been devoted to developing those relationships is instead devoted to seeing the heroes in action. The lightning zaps and frequent fisticuffs are entertaining yet border dangerously close to generic for the first two thirds of the film, yet the final act more than makes up for it with its highly anticipated dragon fights and hordes of rampaging Greek monsters.
In many recent superhero flicks, an emphasis and reliance on CGI has often been to the detriment of the final product and only invites mockery from the audiences, however, Fury of the Gods benefits from an increased special effects budget. The aforementioned dragon drips with menace and danger, and its tough, wooden hide is thoroughly convincing. Lifelike minotaurs, manticores, harpies and other mythical creatures terrorize Philadelphia throughout the film’s climax. A lot of attention to detail clearly went into designing these monsters, and with the little personality they are given they are miles above the standard faceless copy-pasted CGI minion armies that plague the climaxes of action movies.
The CGI suffers when it comes to the powers of Zegler’s Anthea. The swirling scenes of skyscrapers being rearranged does nothing but remind me of the dizzyingly kaleidoscopic scenes of the Mirror Dimension from Marvel’s Doctor Strange franchise. This isn’t a friendly comparison. Where the Mirror Dimension presents audiences with a mind-bending thrill ride, watching the Philly skyline shuffle around is disappointingly bland. Knowing how convincing the Rock of Eternity and monsters look left me wishing that more effort had been lent to these scenes.
Even though the highlight of Fury of the Gods is the action, the cast is given plenty of room to shine. Where the first film primarily focuses on the Billy/Freddy dynamic, the rest of the family is now given plenty of room to demonstrate their personalities. Both the adult hero actors and the child actors have ample screen time to further develop their quirks, from Eugene’s (Ian Chen and Ross Butler) video game obsession to Darla’s (Faithe Herman and Meagan Good) colorful optimism.
The no-nonsense approach of the Daughters of Atlas offers an effective foil for the fun-loving heroes. Liu’s single-minded fixation on revenge against humanity ensures that the plot always drives forward, though it leads to a rather one-note performance. Mirren’s Hespera picks up the slack though. Her coy smugness and gravitas consumes every scene that the angry goddess is in. Mirren’s understated menace pairs especially well with Levi’s exaggerated bravado, and even though she had ample screen time I found myself still wanting more. Mirren stated that though she isn’t a fan of superhero movies, she signed on to Fury of the Gods because she enjoyed Sandberg’s first film so much, and it’s evident that she had a blast with the role.
It feels strange to say, but for a film with Shazam in the title, the hero’s story almost plays second fiddle. That’s not a knock on Angel or Levi, who retain their infectious joie de vivre and still confidently claim their space on the screen. But Billy’s character arc of learning how to let go of the family he so desperately clings to is relegated to the background. Though it seems a contradiction, Billy at the same time seems to struggle to accept his adopted mother Rosa (Marta Milans), a storyline I thought had already been resolved by the end of the previous film. Both of these plot threads receive very quick, almost unearned resolutions. It’s as if all we learned all we needed to know about Billy from the last movie.
Instead it is Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy Freeman that takes center stage as the emotional center of the film. His chemistry with love interest Anthea is compellingly sweet and his misadventures with the Wizard (who can’t quite seem to remember the boy’s name) make for a delightful side story. Grazer’s easy transitions from swaggering bravado to sheer terror to bashfully lovestruck elevate his character from quirky sidekick to the real champion of the film.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods offers fans of the first film more of the same: a family-friendly action adventure with humor and heart. And that’s not a bad thing. Sandberg clearly knows and respects the source material, and it’s that sense of authentic enjoyment that makes the formula work. It’s a film crafted by a fan for fans. Although the future of the Shazam! films is uncertain under the new James Gunn/ Peter Safran regime, Fury of the Gods presents a convincing argument that Earth’s Mightiest Mortal is still worthy of that movie magic.