The unwieldy Shazam sequel looks terrible, lacks the original’s freshness, and struggles with its extended cast. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, it seems.
Standalone sequels have been a rare occurrence in DC’s ever-flailing shared cinematic universe, which has in the past decade—the Henry Cavill-led Man of Steel that started it all is coming up on its 10th anniversary—swung wildly on the whims of the box office, the regime-in-charge, or straightforward envy. The last of those seemed to be the raison d’être for the first Shazam movie four years ago. But unlike a lot of the brooding Zack Snyder stuff, it actually worked for the most part. Sure, it didn’t make a killing at the box office as with Aquaman or Wonder Woman, but Warner Bros. was happy to hand it a sequel. Unfortunately, just like Wonder Woman 1984 failed to build on the success of its predecessor, Shazam! Fury of the Gods tries in vain to recapture the lightning.
While the 2019 original was quick on its feet and excellent in handling the wish-fulfilment stuff, the second Shazam film—from returning director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden, now joined by Fast & Furious veteran writer Chris Morgan—lacks the joy and the freshness. The first chapter was largely a two-hander between Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer. On Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Sandberg has to manage an extended hero ensemble, now that everyone in the family has powers. He must also integrate three new villains (who are a marginal improvement on Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana from Shazam!). The unwieldy sequel struggles under the weight of it all, more so since it has to balance its plot and character demands with its attempts at levity.
Lightning never strikes Shazam! Fury of the Gods
Unable to hold onto any sort of meaningful emotional throughline, Shazam! Fury of the Gods ends up being all over the place. Though it’s self-aware and eager to please, there’s a tonal dissonance that rips it apart. No matter how many pot-shots it takes at them, the self-serious high-profile villains—Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu play goddesses Hespera and Kalypso—can never gel with the jokey nature of the world around them. It goes for a go-big-or-go-home climactic sequence à la The Avengers, but it lands with a thud. (The epilogue is winning, but it draws its power from elsewhere.)
It doesn’t help that the new DC movie looks and feels bland—the visual aesthetic and VFX (there’s a lot of it) are unappealing. The cinematography, from Gyula Pados (the new Jumanji movies), has no style to it. Shazam! Fury of the Gods feels like a sitcom, with scenes all made up of rushed mid-shots that were never really storyboarded.
Watching Shazam! Fury of the Gods, you get the sense that they—Sandberg and his team—stuffed all of their best ideas into the first one. I kept waiting for a lightning bolt to strike the film and bring it back to life. But there’s no spark, no thunderclap, and no real ingenuity.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods: the plot
Roughly three years have passed since the events of the first Shazam movie. Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who is turning 18 in five months, is constantly worried. He’s afraid that he’ll have to leave the foster home, as he’ll age out. In his superhero self (Zachary Levi), he feels like a fraud who doesn’t deserve his powers—he’s suffering from impostor syndrome. Billy is also afraid of his foster family breaking up and everyone going their separate ways as they turn into adults. To keep everyone together, he’s coined a slogan, “all or none”. And though they lend their support to group crime-fighting activities, his foster siblings don’t share his level of enthusiasm. After all, despite their heroics, they’ve been dubbed the “Philadelphia Fiascos”.
But soon—as is nearly always the case with superhero films—they have bigger problems to contend with. Thanks to the ripple effects of Billy’s actions in the first Shazam film, Hespera (Mirren) and Kalypso (Liu) have arrived in the world of humans, bent on taking revenge for the powers that were taken from them. They prove to be more than a handful for the Shazam family—which includes superhero fan Freddy Freeman (Grazer/Adam Brody), obsessive gamer Eugene Choi (Ross Butler/Ian Chen), the gay and sensitive Pedro Peña (D.J. Cotrona/Jovan Armand), the academically-driven Mary Bromfield (Grace Caroline Currey), and the youngest Darla Dudley (Meagan Good/Faithe Herman).
What works and doesn’t work in the new Shazam!
The bulk of Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ runtime is distributed between Levi, Grazer, Liu, Mirren, and Rachel Zegler (West Side Story) who plays Freddy’s new classmate and love interest, Anne. While Levi’s glass-full exuberance is still in contrast to Angel’s muted take on Billy, the sheer energy of his performance powers the new DC film. Mirren, always terrific, is given the job of selling lines only she can. Liu is tasked with chewing scenery with her pure-evil avatar, while Zegler is handed a conflicted and empathetic character that comes naturally to her.
There is some fun to be had. Shazam! Fury of the Gods makes use of the age gap between the six kids to drive some of its humour. A new sentient object also contributes to it, by way of the bumbling Billy thinking out loud and not realising the goof-ups he’s making—and a stern-faced Mirren being asked to read Gen-Z language off paper. And the first film’s recurring joke, of their lack of superhero names, is brought back and extended to more of the Shazam family. It leads to a satisfying payoff and a touching moment in the midst of the CGI-laden climax.
But the rest of Shazam! Fury of the Gods fails to impress. The action sequences are more elaborate—after all, we have a dragon, goddesses, cyclops, harpies, unicorns, manticores, and minotaurs—but none of it is memorable, just as with the first Shazam film. (An extended sequence involving Darla and an angry unicorn reeks of product placement.) To make matters worse, the creature design is downright awful, on par with the ghastly, ‘80s B-movie manifestations of the seven deadly sins in Shazam!. For the love of God, why can’t filmmakers make them look better, with more identifiable features? The unicorns—who seem to be just a splotch of black I could conjure up on Photoshop—are the worst of it all.
Fury of the Gods might be the end of Shazam
With the latest reset to the DC Universe, Shazam faces an uncertain future. James Gunn—the studio’s new co-CEO, alongside Shazam! Fury of the Gods producer Peter Safran—has already axed Henry Cavill (Superman), Ben Affleck (Batman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), and Dwayne Johnson (Black Adam). Basically, pretty much everyone we’ve seen in DC movies in the past decade. The future of Zachary Levi and Jason Momoa (Aquaman) hangs on the respective box-office performances of their films.
That’s a problem for Shazam, who’s not a big-name hero just as with Black Adam. Heck, Black Adam struggled even with the wattage of Johnson. And it’s clear that the new DC chiefs don’t have much faith in the box-office prospects of Shazam! Fury of the Gods. In the days leading up to release, they opted to spoil the film’s biggest cameo, ostensibly in a bid to draw audiences to the cinemas. It’s a move that reeks of desperation.
But the bigger problem is that the sequel is nowhere as good as the first Shazam movie. The stakes are raised, Helen Mirren is in it, and there are a lot of constantly-moving elements. But yet, you still don’t feel a thing. Shazam! Fury of the Gods is clumsily organised, reeks of committee control, and is less than the sum of its parts. Magic is everywhere in the film—but there’s no magic in the filmmaking.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods released on March 17 in India. IMAX previews began on the evening of March 16. In India, the second Shazam movie is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.