When the first Shazam! film came out in 2019, it gave the DC Extended Universe a serious jolt. The DCEU had started off as a bleak, desaturated take on its source material, although Wonder Woman gave it a much needed dose of color and optimism. But Shazam! was really the first time the DCEU leaned into the comedic aspects of its heroes without sacrificing source fidelity, action, or theatrics. In short, it was a fun, zip-bang, good time of a film. But it seems that even with most of the same creative crew behind its sequel, Shazam! 2: Fury of the Gods, that the first time might have used up most of the magic.
When the film opens, we learn that our titular hero, a.k.a. Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi), and his super-powered siblings have been trying to fight crime and save lives in Philidelphia. However, their inexperience and tendency toward collateral damage have dubbed them “The Philly Fiascos” in the press. On top of living with imposter syndrome, Billy is about to turn 18 and is afraid he’ll be forced to leave his foster home and family. He’s going to have to get it together, though, because a new threat looms on the horizon in the form of the Daughters of Atlas — Hespera and Kalypso (Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu) — who seek to reclaim the powers of the gods that Billy and his siblings currently carry.
The movie starts with promise and a relatively elaborate and surprisingly dark set piece. The Daughters have entered a Greek museum that holds the staff that the Wizard Shazam used to give Billy his powers in the first place, the staff itself having been broken in two by Billy during the climax of the last film. Upon touching the staff, the Daughters get back a bit of their stolen powers. Kalypso first uses her mind control powers to turn the patrons mindless with rage, and later Hespera uses her elemental powers to turn said patrons into statues. While the first film’s antagonist did drive the narrative to some dark places, this has an extra layer of nightmare fuel added, telling us right from the start that the ante has been upped and that the Daughters very much mean business.
But then nothing as creative or captivating as that happens for the rest of the film. Most of the action is just pretty standard and well-worn superhero fare: rescuing people from mass disasters, epic punching battles, less-than-cordial exchanges of energy blasts. The players involved might make more quips than usual or be portrayed by actors taking jobs well below their pay grades seriously, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Ten years ago this might have all been fine, but now that superhero films have become their own genre, the usual just won’t cut it anymore.
It doesn’t help that a film that relies so much on special effects just doesn’t always seem to bring its SFX A-game. During a first act scene involving a collapsing commuter bridge, some of the CGI looks incredibly, inexcusably cheap. We’re talking mid-tier Syfy original feature here. The original Shazam! had a budget of about $100 million, the second lowest for a DCEU film, but they made that work. The budget has only slightly increased here, but the demand for effects work is many times higher, and it just isn’t able to rise the occasion every time. Which isn’t to say the effects don’t also occasionally impress; a massive dragon made of wood and energy looks amazing and well-designed even if its movements are occasionally jerky and uncanny.
It doesn’t help that the film’s narrative is just as shaky and unstable. Exploring a superhero with imposter syndrome has some promise, and the film does make some interesting story beats around it, but the further along the film goes the less it cares about that. Character development gets pushed aside for superheroic action until the climax when it’s suddenly brought to the forefront again. The climax itself is a jumbled mess of ideas all thrown together at once like a caffeinated teenage gamer’s fever dream. To be fair, several of the third act scenes are exciting and even heart-pounding, but they’re also just a bunch of scenes in a row with very little overall coherence.
Part of what makes the narrative so flimsy is the Daughters of Atlas themselves. I should point out that this is never due to the actors’ performances. I would buy a ticket to see Helen Mirren read the phone book, and she’s effortlessly, deliciously villainous here. Lucy Liu leans in much harder to the overtly camp aspects of the film, but she’s just as much fun to watch. Both of them are absolute troopers through and through. But the Daughters are original creations for the film and not taken from the very long-running Shazam/Captain Marvel comics. The characters feel like an inorganic graft onto the franchise, and the narrative’s attempt to fit them into its internal mythology just comes off as weak. I lost count of how many times it felt like the writers were just randomly pulling things out of their asses to make the Daughters a thing.
If I could indulge my penchant for metatextuality for a moment (why thank you, I think I will), a lot of this seems to stem from the lack of strategy and forethought that seems to have plagued the DCEU almost from day one. The tease during the end of the last film, which featured classic Shazam villain Mister Mind proposing a team up with that film’s Big Bad Dr. Sivana, comes to nothing but a post-credits mention here. Shazam’s arch-nemesis Black Adam, also alluded to in the previous film, is completely absent thanks to Dwayne Johnson throwing his clout around and insisting Black Adam both get his own, Shazam-free movie first and an inexplicable rivalry with Superman. Given all this, I’m not surprised that the creative team just decided to say to hell with it and created new antagonists. I sympathize but I also criticize, since the Daughters just don’t have enough weight or history behind them to make the conflict they bring seem important.
However, just like the actors playing the Daughters make them more interesting than they’re written, so too do the heroes rise above their script thanks to the performances of the cast. Like in the first film, Zachary Levi connects well to the very specific energy needed to play Shazam. This is a teenage boy in a mature body in charge of the standard superhero power suite, and Levi just nails it. Billy is struggling to reconcile his powers with his sense of responsibility while also trying to lead his super-siblings, and he tends to cover this up with false bravado and an excessive amount of sarcasm. It’s a surprisingly relatable situation, and when the film remembers this side of the character, it’s fantastic to watch.
One of the best players in the cast, though, is Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy’s foster brother and best friend Freddy. Freddy has his own unique approach to being a superhero. As himself, Freddy is a disabled superhero superfan with a razor sharp wit and lack of f-s to give. As a hero, he’s still got his wits and lack of f-s, but in a strong, non-disabled body, allowing him to do all the things his idols do. Freddy spends a good deal of the film depowered thanks to the Daughters of Atlas, and through this we get to discover new aspects of his personality that allow him to be heroic as himself. It honestly almosts make him the real star of the film. Grazer fully embodies the character, making him extremely sympathetic and likable. Adam Brody, as Freddy’s superhero persona “Captain Everypower”, is great at mimicking Grazer’s energy and vibe, making Freddy probably the most complex and fully-realized character in the entire ensemble and an absolutely joy to watch.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods doesn’t skimp on action or spectacle, but it often seems to come at the cost of narrative and overall structure. It tries to mine the characters for personal drama but then undoes a tremendous amount of its work during a messy climax that ends with a very literal deus ex machina. The cast is uniformly on their game, making magic out of a weak and unfocused script, with antagonists that are as menacing as they are entertaining. The Shazamily deserves a better film to highlight their dynamic relationship than this. Just say the word, James Gunn.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+