Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)
I enjoyed 2019’s Shazam! because it felt like a breath of fresh air, a lighter story compared to the relentless gloom and doom of the DCU. It was more a silly Big-style body swap movie than a super hero romp, tapping into childhood wish fulfillment of getting to transform not just as an adult but as a super-powered adult on a whim. It was funny, sweet, and different. The 2023 sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, feels like the definition of a sequel for the sake of a sequel. It is thoroughly mediocre and lacking the charm and heart of the original. I’ll try and deduce why this super-charged sequel feels so lacking and why the fun feels so forced.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) can turn into Shazam (Zachary Levi) by uttering the magic name, and now his foster family share his same super abilities. They’re trying to adjust back to “normal life” when the Daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Luicy Lui), arrive with a vengeance. Turns out Shazam’s powers were stolen from the Greek gods, and now they want them back, and if they don’t reclaim their power, the gods will destroy the world of man.
I think one of the most lacking elements of Fury of the Gods is that it loses its core appeal. The first movie was about a child fulfilling their adult dreams and leaping into maturity before their time. Levi (Apollo 10 1/2) was goofy and enjoyable in his broadly comical fish-out-of-water portrayal as a kid in an adult’s body. Now, the growing pains of being an adult, and a superhero, have been eclipsed. In fact, the amount of time we spend with Billy is pretty sparing. It’s all Shazam all the time, and this hurts presenting a worthwhile contrast between the mythic and the recognizably human. You forget the initial dynamic of this kid pretending to be an adult and what advantages this affords. At this point, being an adult is the same as being Billy Batson, who is approaching 18 and will age out of the foster system. This reality creates an existential crisis for Billy, as he’s afraid his family will move on so he’s eager to keep them together all the time, trying to maintain control. It’s about fear of change; however, I never fully understood why Billy was so worried. He’s already found a home with a loving mother, father, and extended clan of siblings, so why does aging out matter? He’s not going to be removed from his home. His siblings also aren’t talking about shipping out to the different corners of the world to begin careers or higher education. It’s a forced conflict to make the character uneasy about growing up. If the first movie was about a kid coming to terms with himself and letting others in, then this movie is all about a kid worrying his relationships will arbitrarily evaporate. This anxiety over losing something meaningful could have been an interesting storyline, but it’s all so contrived, and the whole body swap dynamic, the selling point of the first film, feels strangely absent.
Likewise, the villains have questionable motivation and character development. The movie begins with cloaked and masked figures wreaking havoc in a museum, and then it makes a big deal that these figures happen to be… women (also middle-aged and older at that). The opening is meant to be surprising in a way that feels out of date (what… g-g-girls can be powerful too?). It’s a strange point considering we’ve already had Wonder Woman. This same easily-satisfied, lowest common denominator plotting is disappointingly prevalent. These powerful gods want their father’s powers back but they already seem pretty powerful, so the movie lacks a fitting explanation of why these extra powers are worth all this effort. I suppose there’s a general revenge and righting of wrongs but the characters don’t play their parts too scorned. They’re more annoyed and tired, which doesn’t make for the most compelling villains. Another Daughter of Atlas has the power to mix and match the world like a volatile Rubix cube, but what is this power? It’s virtual obstacle-making but it feels arbitrary too in the world of superpowers. The ultimate scheme to conquer the world is as flimsy as the reasons it’s ultimately defeated.
Let me dissect that part for a few words, the solutions to overcoming our vengeful gods. They raise an army of mythical creatures to destroy Philadelphia and it’s Ray Harryhausen character designs with cyclops and unicorns and the like. The way to reach through to the monsters and bring them on your side is to offer them a gift of “ambrosia,” some tasteful bounty that they can’t help but fall in love with. So what is the solution to this? One of the kids literally drops a handful of Skittles onto the street and the unicorn happily snarfs them down. Yes, through the power of Skittles-brand candy the heroes are able to save the day. There’s even a moment where the kid is riding the unicorns into battle and screams, “Taste the rainbow,” before the movie cheekily cuts her off before she can unleash an added “MF-er.” What is this? I’m usually agnostic on product placement in movies; characters have to eat and drink, etc. But when it’s egregiously transparent and played as the key to victory against all odds, that’s a bit much. If the joke is that contemporary food is a blast of flavor that nobody would have been prepared for thousands of years ago with their palettes, then any modern food could have worked. It didn’t have to be a brand-name candy with its brand-name slogan screamed in battle. This is but the first of several contrived and unsatisfying deus ex machina solutions that erase consequences.
Even with returning director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), the enterprise feels like an empty retread relying too much on rote spectacle and missing the heart and perspective of its predecessor. There is an action sequence atop a collapsing suspension bridge and the song “Holding Out for a Hero” plays, and then we have a character comment on it, and it all seems like a desperate attempt to add some energy or style or fun to the sequence that is absent. The action relies on a lot of watching characters zip pedestrians to safety, but it’s the end result we see, not the whoosh and flurry of the arduous mission. The whole sequence feels like it’s going through the motions, as much of the movie does, falling back on a formula of superhero blockbuster autopilot. The CGI army of villains, the face-offs between characters shooting magic beams at one another, the overly quippy and tiresome dialogue and mugging cranked up to overdrive, the world-saving stakes feeling so minor. I was longing for some of the ’80s Amblin tone of the original, which got surprisingly dark. With Fury of the Gods, everything feels so safe and settled, with the stakes feeling inauthentic and the action reinforcing this with effects sequences that feel like Saturday morning cartoon filler.
There’s a strange question with the family powers. The extended brothers and sisters can utter “Shazam” and turn into adult alter egos, but the character of Mary (Grace Caroline Currey, Fall) now transforms into a super suited version of herself with slightly different hair. In 2019, she transformed into actress Michelle Borth (Hawaii 5-0). Mary is the oldest sibling, and we’ve undergone a time jump of years to account for the ages of the kid actors, so does this mean that as the kids get older they will just turn into versions of themselves? Does this mean that the Zachary Levi-persona is set to expire once Billy turns legally an adult at 18? The implications of this casting choice made me question the very reality of the Shazam universe’s mechanics.
I can see certain audiences enjoying the slapstick and gee-whiz goofiness of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and I have no doubt that the people making the movie wanted to tap into that childlike wonder of magic and myth. The problem is that this feels like the most inessential of the dozen DCU movies, going through the motions rather than exploring cogent and potent drama. Just take the character of Pedro (Jovan Armand) who is unhappy with his larger body and transforms into a handsome, slim, musclebound version of himself as a fantasy. That’s an interesting psychological exploration for the character, on top of his own self acceptance on a whole other front. Or take the sidekick from the first movie, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), and his Romeo and Juliet-esque romance of a super-powered being from the other side of the conflict. There’s some drama there as well as his understanding of who the good and bad guys can be. Or simply take the perspectives of the parents trying to raise a household of kids who can transform at whim and what worries and joys this can offer. There’s material here to be finely explored, fun dynamics going beyond just repeating the Big-style body swap hi-jinks. Unfortunately, this is a sequel that feels like what made the original special has been replaced by blockbuster status quo.
Nate’s Grade: C
Posted on March 18, 2023, in 2023 Movies and tagged action, adam brody, comedy, david f. sandberg, dc, Djimon Hounsou, fantasy, gods, helen mirren, lucy lui, rachel zegler, sci-fi, sequel, zachary levi. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
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