SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS
Everything that's wrong with the super-sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods is effectively baked into the title. Because if there's one thing that fans of the 2019 film (myself among them) don't want, or at least shouldn't want, it's fury – not when the original's appeal was so firmly grounded in the goofy, amiable, touching, and refreshingly inconsequential. There was peril, to be sure, but not the sort of bludgeoning, heavy-spirited mayhem that routinely stops director David F. Sandberg's followup in its tracks, and while this new outing isn't without a sense of humor, it doesn't deliver the hoped-for effect. The first Shazam! was a surprising, quick-witted comedy with comic-book antics. This one is a formulaic, overbearing comic-book yarn with occasional jokes. And most of the jokes aren't that great.
I should admit up front that I might be misremembering the action-to-yuks radio of Sandberg's precursor, which I only saw once, at the cineplex, nearly four years ago. When Fury of the Gods presented a 2019 flashback of our titular hero breaking the Wizard's staff in two and there was a reaction shot of chief villain Thaddeus Sivana, my immediate thought was: Wait … Mark Strong was in that movie?! So a few salient details may have slipped my mind. (Hell, even that vast Rock of Eternity realm, with its infinite collection of floating doors, had completely left my brain.) But I clearly recollect the joy that Shazam portrayer Zachary Levi brought to his role after gawky teen Billy Batson magically transformed into a cape-wearing dynamo, and have nothing but fond memories of Jack Dylan Grazer's whip-smart comic timing as Billy's bestie Freddy Freeman. I recall the sitcom sweetness of Billy's foster home, his caretakers, and his fellow orphans who became fellow superheroes; the youth-in-an-adult-body gags that suggested and occasionally transcended those in Big; the ultimate, heartbreaking poignancy of Billy's absent-mom subplot. Yet barring the presence of Djimon Hounsou as that portentous Wizard, it was everything else I had apparently forgotten. With luck, in four years' time, the “everything else” of Fury of the Gods will be forgotten, too. There just won't be nearly as much to remember.
Not that it ends up mattering much, but the new movie's central storyline is all about that aforementioned broken staff, which, in the prelude, a pair of fearsome goddess sisters steal from Athens' Acropolis Museum. Given that these super-powered warriors are played by Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, I'm going to presume they're half-sisters. Anyway, they have to take the staff to the Wizard so he can repair it so they can save their ruined world, or something, and if they destroy Earth in the process, so be it. There's also some business involving a golden apple and the Tree of Life (sadly, not Terrence Malick's Tree of Life). We're also given a humongous dragon and a bunch of unicorns and, for this adventure again set largely in Philadelphia, catastrophic demolition of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and Citizens Bank Park – horrible news for visitors who just wanted to grab a cheesesteak and catch the Phillies game. Oh yeah, and there's also a third goddess sister who's in on the plan but whose identity, at first, is a mystery. Unless, that is, your first sight of her made you instantly wonder why Rachel Zegler – who made such a terrific debut as Maria in Spielberg's West Side Story – would choose to merely play a timid, doe-eyed high-school transplant in her followup feature.
And what of Shazam himself? He's struggling, albeit in that endearingly nattering, hyper-caffeinated manner that Levi perfected in 2019. (It's a manner, however, that makes far less sense than it did four years ago; the returning Asher Angel, who plays 17-year-old Billy, now comes across as leagues more mature and collected than his Spandex-ed counterpart.) Billy-as-Shazam feels like a fraud, he feels the other DC superheroes are cooler than him, he feels his friends are pulling away … yadda yadda yadda. But the kid's one truly novel anguish – the one that should have been fully explored and is barely referenced after its introduction – is that, as someone about to turn 18, he's about to age out of the foster-care system, and will consequently be forced to leave his home and family. That's a great subject for a teen character to explore in a movie of any genre, and it's fun to think of all the ways screenwriters Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan might have employed Billy's dilemma here, even as a B-plot to the requisite smash-and-bang.
After two of these releases, I still don't know whether the Shazam costume can be physically removed, or if Billy's crime-fighting alter ego is forced to wear it at all times. Wouldn't it have been a hoot to find out? If Billy, for instance, decided that grown-up life post-foster-home might be easier if he actually looked like a grown-up, and his Zachary Levi incarnation had to put on a suit (perhaps on top of his super-suit) and apply for a job and secure a secret identity? Maybe that would have brought the material too close to Superman (or Big) terrain, or maybe it's a notion the filmmakers are saving for a second sequel – if this one's lackluster opening-weekend box office doesn't prevent one. Regardless, as it stands, Fury of the Gods is stuck with a prototypical world-ending scenario that isn't at all interesting and teen crises that aren't made nearly interesting enough, and it all blends into an only vaguely diverting, vaguely funny experience with blandly solid effects that pretty much evaporates by the time you get to your car.
Some of the movie's throwaway touches are admittedly inspired. Augmenting the Harry Potter-y-ness of the Rock of Eternity is a sentient pen named Steve who writes down everything, everything, that's said during dictation. (Literally the only laughs that Mirren and Liu are allowed to deliver are the result of Steve's composition – when Mirren's Hespera reads a load of meaningless chatter thinking it's part of an ultimatum, and when Liu's Kalypso demands to know what Gatorade is.) Billy's masturbatory fantasy involving Wonder Woman was nicely interrupted twice, first by Shazam aggressively munching a breath mint, and then by the Wizard showing up in a place no horny teenage boy would ever want the Wizard to appear. The brief détente between Shazam and Hespera at an outdoor eatery was charming, and would have been wonderfully unexpected if it weren't so prominently employed in the trailer. (I was shocked, however, that the film didn't include the trailer's most amusing in-joke: When Levi's reference to the Fast & the Furious franchise led to a shot of Mirren's deadpan – Mirren, of course, having played Jason Statham's mother in the last several F&tF flicks.)
Plus, although I had no cause for complaint whenever Adam Brody showed up as his costumed alter ego, literally every Fury of the Gods minute with Grazer is a delight, the young actor nailing both Freddie's teen angst and his hilarious, incredulous, motor-mouthed hypochondria – a Grazer specialty since 2017's It. Even though Levi's shtick has grown a bit repetitive and his emotional age doesn't appear equal to Angel's, the actor is still good for a number of chuckles, and at least half of his comedic readings are unexpected even when his punchlines are predictable. But Grazer is truly on fire, and during a few scenes, he even gets Hounsou's Wizard to lighten up and crack a few jokes. That's more than inspired. That's insane.
Unfortunately, there's so, so much else to consider here. The unpleasant, glass-shattering viciousness of the opening robbery that sets a dour tone from the start. The pro forma rescue of endangered bridge travelers scored to – what else? – Bonnie Tyler's “Holding Out for a Hero.” (Why is every 21st-century superhero movie so dependent on tired, 20th-century pop tunes?) The utter waste of Rachel Zegler, who, even in goddess attire, has nothing to do but extend her arms and vacantly stare. The obscene grandiosity of the climactic battle sequences, which are noisy as all-get-out but in no way memorable. The offensive product placement for Skittles, which was never more noxious than when a character actually yelled, “Taste the rainbow!” (All I could taste at that moment was bile.) And particularly the ludicrous, shameless finale that borrows the maudlin climax to another DC offering I could but won't name, and which is followed by a cameo so inevitable yet so thunderously wrong that I totally felt their pain when fellow patrons groaned. Yes, we should no doubt beware the gods' fury. If I were a member of this new Shazam!'s creative team, though, I'd be more concerned about the fury of my audience.