Movie Curiosities — Shazam: Fury of the Gods
It pains me to write this review, folks. I seriously feel a tangible pain setting pen to paper for this one.
I’d previously written a whole separate blog entry about how Shazam: Fury of the Gods got thoroughly fucked over by the pandemic lockdowns, the ongoing WBD corporate fuckery, Dwayne Johnson’s ego, and the imminent Safran/Gunn reboot of the DC Cinematic Universe, hoping if I got all that out of the way, I’d have an easier time knowing where to start. (Shit, Zachary Levi made an ass of himself on Twitter and that’s the LEAST of this franchise’s problems.) But no, that was before news came out that director David F. Sandberg is taking an indefinite hiatus from superhero cinema altogether, yet another reason why this franchise cannot and will not continue as it currently exists.
Put all of that together and we get the most prominent reason why this is such a painful review to write: If this film had been an unsalvageable disgrace that we could all ignore and forget about on the way to whatever’s next for DC in film, that would’ve been better for everyone involved. But no, it’s not a bad movie. It’s actually quite a good film in spots. More to the point, it’s like three good films slammed together into a 130-minute runtime.
It breaks my heart to think of what we could’ve gotten if this cast and crew had been given what they needed. If this movie had been made a year or two earlier. If the film was allowed to even mention Black Adam in passing, or if Superman or the Wizard could openly acknowledge that they’ve met both characters. If anyone behind the scenes or in the C-suite had any coherent idea what the fuck was going on with the greater DC film continuity.
All this chaos, all this corporate dysfunction, and it clearly shows in this scattershot end result. But even with so much miscellaneous shit spread through a convoluted and ridiculously contrived plot, we still got some great moments of epic spectacle, potent character drama, and heartfelt sincerity powered by strongly developed themes.
It’s an okay movie that should’ve been a great one. The filmmakers took shit and they spun it into brass when the cast, the crew, and the previous entry itself all deserved gold. Such a damn shame.
Anyway, we pick up with Billy Batson (alternately played by Asher Angel and Zachary Levi) two years after the events of the first movie. Billy and his foster siblings are still working together as a superhero team, and it’s not going well. To start with, there’s the inescapable fact that a bunch of minors with adult bodies and godlike powers won’t exactly be the most professional or competent at their work. In point of fact, while the six of them try their hardest and they do succeed in saving quite a few lives, they either directly cause or fail to prevent so much collateral damage that they’re most commonly known as the “Philadelphia Fiascoes.”
(Yes, the character is traditionally named “Captain Marvel”, and that’s been a recurring legal headache for decades. No, it doesn’t make any sense for the character to be named “Shazam” when it means the lead character can’t say his own name without powering up or de-powering. No, the sequel doesn’t come up with any kind of solution, but instead makes a recurring joke about how there is no solution.)
- Darla, Eugene, and Pedro (respectively played as children by Faithe Herman/Meagan Good, Ian Chen/Ross Butler, and Jovan Armand/D.J. Cotrona) are the youngest of the group, and mostly just want to be kids. Darla is still endearingly naive, Eugene is more interested in exploring and understanding the Rock of Eternity, and Pedro has enough to deal with while figuring out that he’s gay.
- Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) is now a full-grown adult (likely why she’s the only one of the team played by the same actor as a kid and a superhero) and she’s still living in the foster home even after she turned 18 and the government support checks stopped coming in. Mary wants to go out drinking and get a job and be a productive adult, rather than keep putting her life on hold to play superhero with her younger siblings.
- Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer/Adam Brody) is still addicted to the high of being a handsome and invulnerable superhero instead of a dorky kid with a crutch. Funny enough, sharing a school lunch with both Shazam and Superman made him a bully target instead of having the opposite effect. So it is that Freddy wants to be a superhero and do the television interviews for the sake of his own ego, to the point where the complaints of collateral damage slide right off him.
And in the middle of all this is Billy Batson himself. The kid who’s still grappling with abandonment issues after his own parents dumped him, compounded by the Impostor Syndrome that comes from being a mid-tier superhero in a world where the Snyderverse Justice League exists. What’s worse, Billy is only a few short months from turning 18, and he’s deathly afraid of losing the only family he’s ever had just as soon as he ages out of foster care. So it is that Billy is pathetically desperate at holding his foster siblings together so they can all stay close as a family of superheroes.
All this stuff is well and good, nicely building on the themes and character development of the first movie. The only real problem is that Asher Angel is limited to something like three minutes of screen time in total. I get that focusing on Zachary Levi means giving more screen time to the marquee celebrity while also limiting the potential damage of a young franchise lead aging out. Though it makes all kinds of practical sense, it’s unfair to such a talented young actor just starting out, and the absence of a teen Billy Batson onscreen feels like the filmmakers are neglecting a crucial pillar of the franchise.
And then we move on to the villains.
It’s an iconic foundation of the property that Shazam holds the powers of the gods. The movie goes a step further and states that Shazam’s powers were literally stolen from the gods, who were then sealed away in a pocket dimension for the sake of all humanity. And it turns out that when Billy broke the wizard’s staff in the climax of the first movie, he unwittingly broke the spell that kept the gods away from Earth.
Enter Hespera and Kalypso (respectively played by Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu), two immortal daughters of Atlas who come to Earth and rebuild the staff. With it, they intend to steal back the powers of the gods, de-powering the Marvel Family on their way to building a new and better home for the gods. There’s some manner of debate as to where exactly that new home should be built, but it’s a superhero movie, so what do you think?
Alas, I’m sorry to say that our villains are not especially deep or developed. They’re only really threatening and fun to watch because Mirren and Liu are chewing the scenery like that’s all they’re getting paid to do here. I could accuse Djimon Hounsou of the same, but at least he looks like he’s genuinely having fun and grateful to build on a thankless role from the first movie.
Yes, it turns out that Hounsou’s unnamed wizard is in fact still alive. It’s never explicitly stated what happened, but I presume the Shazam powers were all that kept him from getting imprisoned by the gods, so he was fair game as soon as Billy came into the picture. Though the wizard primarily serves as an exposition machine, he also serves nicely as a means of calling into question whether Billy and his foster siblings are worthy of these superpowers.
Also returning, we’ve got Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews on hand as the foster parents. They don’t really play any huge role until the third act, but they make up for lost time in a big way and provide the film with some powerful heart.
Last but not least, we’ve got Rachel Zegler on hand, playing a love interest for Freddy though of course she’s more involved in the plot than she lets on at first. Not that the role is a complete waste of Zegler’s talent — in particular, she makes an extraordinary effort at selling her chemistry with Grazer. Even so, this is one of those characters whose allegiances tend to fluctuate according to the needs of the plot. Hell, it’s like the character is made of the same chewed-up gum and paperclips holding the plot together.
Another all-purpose plot contrivance desperately straining to hold the plot together would be “Steve”. He’s a magic pen from the Rock of Eternity, an all-knowing writing utensil that helpfully writes down the answer to any question asked of it. In short, we have a literal exposition machine in this movie, a means for the protagonists to get any information they want or need by way of hand-waving magic, with no conflict or effort or difficulty whatsoever. That’s some pathetically bad writing.
And then we have the A-list Snyderverse Justice League cameo in the denouement. And this isn’t some throwaway faceless joke like Superman showing up at the end of the first movie, this is dead-to-rights the most boldfaced deus ex machina I’ve ever seen in my life. I was laughing my ass off in the theater, it was that outrageously shameless and defiantly nonsensical. That one scene was proof positive that the filmmakers have no idea what they’re doing with the future of DC in film or where Shazam fits into it — at least, they sure as hell didn’t at the time of filming.
(Speaking of noteworthy cameos, check out the brief appearance from Michael Gray, who played Billy Batson for a short-lived TV show back in the ’70s. They even put him in the trademark yellow shirt and red sweater, he’s impossible to miss.)
The point being, we’ve got six different superpowered lead characters flying around asserting their independence, each with their own themes and development arcs and subplots and at least one romance arc, in addition to the villains and their millennia worth of backstory pertaining to the gods and the stolen powers, and all of that’s before we can even get started on the villains’ big apocalyptic plan. It’s such a royal headache trying to cram all of this into two hours while keeping it light and breezy, of course the plot is going to be a convoluted mess.
That said, the film does take some measures to mitigate the damage and maximize the most relevant impact. To start with, we’ve got villains who can de-power our main characters. This serves as a convenient way to backseat some of the younger supporting heroes so they don’t take up as much room in the action sequences. More importantly, it calls into question who these kids are and what makes them extraordinary when they don’t have powers anymore. It’s an old genre trope, to be sure, but it’s a classic for a damn good reason.
While the villains may be lamentably thin as characters in and of themselves, obsessively — dare I say one-dimensionally focused on threadbare motivations. But the villains are quite notable for how they push our heroes to a limit they never conceived possible, so the heroes finally have to figure out how they’re really going to act when the chips are down and it’s not just for fun anymore. Even better, it’s worth stressing repeatedly and emphatically how Hespera and Kalypso force our lead characters to question their worthiness to godlike powers that they just kinda fell into.
Then we have the dragon — you know, the one Shazam throws a truck into in every one of the umpteen times we’ve seen the trailer for this picture. The dragon is primarily noteworthy because his main weapon of attack is to generate fear. The dragon literally has the psychic power to make mortals so overcome with fear that they either run away screaming or go mad. But when one of the heroes actually takes the step of directly confronting the dragon, guy’s got a glass jaw. The film never directly points it out, but it’s made clear on multiple occasions that this dragon cannot stand up to a direct hit from Shazam or his siblings.
In other words, the dragon can dish it out but he can’t take it. Past all the bravado and intimidation, he’s got nothing. Put more simply, the dragon is a bully. We’ve got a crew of teenagers taking down a bully for the big climactic set piece. That’s frankly brilliant, especially since the filmmakers leave it to the subtext without getting overly preachy or obvious about it.
Shazam: Fury of the Gods clearly shows us what might’ve been a good movie underneath all the clutter. The film tries to accomplish too much in too short a time, so the world-building is a mess, and the writing is lousy with cheap and lazy shortcuts. Still, the film cost a reported $125 million budget, and every dime of that shows up on the screen.
The production design is fantastic, the action set pieces are all great fun, the character drama lands beautifully, and the heroic themes hit hard. On those grounds, I’d argue that the film ultimately succeeds in every way that matters and thus deserves a passing grade. Even so, it’s a damn shame that this series didn’t get the time it needed.
For a movie and a franchise destined to fail, it’s miracle enough that we got an enjoyable end product. I look forward to the day when all the ongoing drama comes out in the wash and we can enjoy both of these movies on their own merit, removed from all the other context.
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5 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities — Shazam: Fury of the Gods”
So what happened to Mr. Mind? They set him up in the first movie as the next antagonist, and they just replace him with two Greek deities?
He does show up again at the end in the post credits but that’s it.
So he was wasted, basically?
Pretty much. I’m afraid Curiosity Inc’s pessimistic vision of the Shazam movie franchise’s future are probably correct, so it doesn’t look like we’ll get to see Mr. Mind as a major antagonist in a future movie. A shame, really, as I would have liked to have seen them pull it off.