One of the stranger results of the modern DC cinematic universe was seeing 2019’s Shazam! outdo several other entries that should have been the heaviest hitters. Working well to provide superhero spectacle, a heavy dose of gee-whiz fun, and a dab of horror that’s familiar to director David F. Sandberg, the story of a teenager gifted superpowers did the job of establishing a proper origin and going a step beyond by letting other characters in on the fun. Shazam! Fury of the Gods is the follow-up that addresses how a family of young superheroes functions and the wrinkles that come from upsetting the balance of power (not to be confused with shifting the hierarchy of power, as Dwayne Johnson wants Black Adam, a Shazam villain, to have nothing to do with Shazam for whatever reason). The results: a fun enough sequel that misses out on some of the magic of the first but still has plenty of powerful ideas up its sleeve.
Establishing the current status quo is fun. Despite all sharing superpowers, Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi in Shazam mode) and his foster siblings are not exactly great at the superhero gig. While they save lives, they’re not the best with property damage, and the media seems to get a kick out of mocking them. Meanwhile, the daughters of Atlas (Helen Mirren’s Hespera and Lucy Liu’s Kalypso) have a grudge against these selected champions of Djimon Hounsou’s ancient wizard. They want to teach humanity a lesson about wielding power, which will involve depowering Billy’s family.
As with any superhero sequel, things are bound to get complicated. That’s certainly the case with a film that has to contend with Billy, his superhero-obsessed brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), the other four siblings, their foster parents, two new villains, an imprisoned wizard, and a new girl in school for Freddy to be interested in, who also happens to be a (very mild but not at all surprising spoiler) daughter of Atlas (Rachel Zegler as Anthea). Writers Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan have their work cut out for them. I haven’t even mentioned an extended third act featuring a wooden dragon that breathes blue flames and various mythological creatures straight out of Greek mythology.
While the MCU has seemingly gotten away with overcrowding many of their features, audiences still seem to hold onto memories of what bothered them about lesser-regarded superhero films such as Batman & Robin (it’s not that bad) and Spider-Man 3 (it’s good, actually) when it comes to adding so many elements into the mix. Shazam! succeeded thanks to the way it gradually raised the stakes. Having that film put so much energy into being Big, but a superhero movie, allowed for the comedy to really land, the relationship between Billy and Freddy to grow, and the dramatic beats to shine. If something is lacking in Fury of the Gods, it’s how to give Billy a dramatic arc that extends beyond wanting to keep people safe.
It seems pretty notable that Billy is rarely seen outside his superhero form this time. However, thanks to many power exchanges, Freddy is primarily seen as his regular self. This clearly comes from the fact that Jack Dylan Grazer is really effective in these films. As a disabled foster kid, how he plays up his outsider/geeky energy is a lot of fun to watch. The choice was made to pair him up with various screen partners to extend that momentum this time around. This is best served by his time spent with Hounsou, who is also game to have a lot of fun. Given his role as an ancient wizard, it is nice to see someone with as much command as Hounsou give in to the spirit of a comic book movie, making it feel natural.
This sort of fun is certainly necessary, as director Sandberg is once again not afraid to get his hands a little dirty when it comes to establishing the threats at hand and raising the stakes. Yes, Shazam! films are more inherently kid-friendly than Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but there’s still an effort to show the danger in this world. Innocent characters die, the monsters presented look ghoulish, and it’s all offered at a scale not too blown out of proportion to lessen the impact. Balancing the tone of all this with what still feels like a sense of wonder is no easy task, but at its best, Fury of the Gods knows what it needs to do to remain a crowd-pleasing effort.
Still, the film does seem to be held back by figuring out how to be more substantial. Part of that comes from an issue held over from the first film – Levi’s Shazam and Angel’s Billy are really not that much alike. This film seems to want to explore Billy trying to understand what it means to be a hero, and yet for every good scene that allows for that reflection, there’s still a lot of high-energy attempts at goofiness from Levi that don’t always hit the mark. There’s, thankfully, so much more going on with this ensemble that it doesn’t outright take away from the film. Still, it’s the sort of thing that’s becoming a recurring issue.
On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the villain work. It seems to be pitched just right, allowing Mirren to bring an imposing presence while Liu delivers on the menace. Having Zegler around as a voice of reason helps bring further shape to what’s taking place among these three, with enough conflict to make their dynamic more interesting than it could have been. I wish that transferred better to the action-packed finale, rendered mainly in special effects, removing almost all human elements. Still, at least the threat was a bit more complicated than it could have been.
It’s strange to feel mixed about how much I enjoyed Shazam! Fury of the Gods. I certainly appreciate how these films operate on their own terms, which comes down to the vision Sandberg is realizing on screen. With that in mind, this is still a downturn from the previous film. But how drastic a turn? Well, I like this ensemble a lot. Whether or not spending more time with the family as kids (along with their parents) would have been a better choice, what’s provided here does spell out how essential it feels to have this element in play. Is the addition of more gods and wizards holding things back? Not necessarily, but I wish there was more thematic work here to connect it all. As it stands, I suppose this continuing adventure of Shazam! feeling like just another comic book issue isn’t a bad thing, but perhaps I’m still hoping lightning strikes twice next time.