Shazam/Billy (Zachary Levi and Asher Angel) returns, now aided by his fellow foster siblings who he shared his superpowers with at the climax of the previous film. The ‘Fam’ (formerly known as the ‘Marvel Family’ in the comics but no longer for obvious reasons) are trying to make themselves the pride and joy of Philadelphia but – perhaps owing to the fact they’re a bunch of teenagers with god-like powers – their constant blunders are earning them more ire than praise from the locals.
As Billy struggles to both come into his own as a leader for the team and grapples with the possibility of the first family he’s ever had moving on as they all get older, Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren rock up as the Daughters of Atlas to wreak havoc. Superpowered sisters, the Daughters were freed by a throwaway action of Billy’s in the previous film and have arrived to take back the powers that justifiably are sort of theirs from this bunch of bickering children. Scenery will be chewed, CGI artists will be overworked, there will be quips and of course, there’s a dragon.
The first Shazam hit at an interesting time for WB/DC. The reactions to, and financial underperformance of, Batman V Superman and Josstice League had people questioning if a shared universe in general – and this entire series of films in particular – was a worthwhile endeavour. Shazam always felt like a gamble of a film even before all those other factors but between its more modest budget/ambitions, a very light touch (for the most part) approach to the shared universe and just being a genuinely charming, smaller scale comicbook film, it was a modest hit and – damning with faint praise as this might sound – one of the best of the modern slate of DC films. Its occasional moments of quiet nastiness owing to having a director primarily known for horror, also helped tonally differentiate it.
Credit where it’s due, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is much more ambitious than the first in terms of visuals and scope. Yet on relatively the same budget as the original, they’ve managed to put out something that doesn’t look out of place alongside many of the twice-as-expensive recent Marvel films. The trade-off is that this does feel like a more generic superhero outing as a result. The original’s greatest strength was that it was basically a high-concept 80s film with a superhero twist and consequently felt more refreshingly small-scale.
With the larger cast, bigger story and (altogether now) third act where a city is under threat from a hoard of CGI monsters; the first’s more unique identity feels a tad smothered (for comparison the finale of the previous film was only seven CGI monsters and the big fight was localised entirely within a Christmas market). But the larger scale of Shazam! Fury of the Gods also affords us larger villains and the sight of Liu and Mirren as all-powerful Greek god-adjacent types is likely to be a big draw; so how are they?
They’re…fine. Both of these actors could chew scenery in their sleep and one wishes they’d been given access to more of the all-you-can-eat set buffet. Mirren brings a nice earnest gravitas to the nonsense surrounding her but ultimately is a tad wasted. Liu gets more play as the ‘main’ villain but suffers a similar fate. That being said, I’m not made of stone, and the sight of Lucy Liu screaming world-conquering rubbish while riding around on a Dark Souls boss did make me smile.
Another casualty of the scale being upped is the humour. The first film managed an impressive joke rate with which a very game cast and tight editing flow delivered a very effortless feeling comedy film from. There was also a slightly more adult slant and edge to the humour that made it stand out from the increasingly toothless brand of safe snark Marvel is wedded to. While Shazam! Fury of the Gods is still funny, it suffers from having so much screen time dedicated to CGI monsters, world-building and exposition that there’s less room for it.
Which is not to say it’s never funny but there’s also been an attempt to slightly broaden the humour which makes it less interesting. Moments like the scene of Mirren reading out the dictated letter or the strangely charming stupidity to the very weird payoff with the unicorns (don’t ask) still retain some of the first’s charm and Djimon Hounsou – who gets far more screen time this go around – turns out to slyly be the comedic MVP of the film. They also get all the credit in the world for taking the relentless bollicking the first one got over that infamous headless Superman cameo and turning it into a very drawn out meta-gag with two different punchlines, one of which is a very delightful “fuck you” to the audience. The second post credits scene also has a similar, delightfully passive-aggressive energy to it.
One oddity of the film is that it *almost* has something to say. The more surface level theme is one of getting older/accepting things change and people in your life move on (in fact, the ending very nearly has some weight and ambiguity to it on this front, until a somewhat literal deus-ex machina that feels like a parody of shared universe screenwriting, dropkicks proceedings back to a safe, clean status quo). But below that there’s a lot of dialogue from Mirren’s character about war and soldiers and it feels like there could have been something interesting in the contrast of all these superpowered kids having fun versus the literal gods who treat their abilities with respect and as the tools of war that they are. Alas, this is just passing lip service by the end and a theme in search of a movie that actually cares to explore it.
With DC/WB ever in some kind of crisis mode, who knows if we’ll see this iteration of the character again. Shazam! Fury of the Gods is not a film without its charms but at best it’s a “more of the same” kind of sequel to a film that probably should have quit while it was ahead when it worked at all. A strange sequel that, while technically shorter than its predecessor, feels longer and with little to justify that than its conforming closer to the generic superhero soup. Still probably better than some of the recent Marvel entries and likely in the upper half of the DC slate as a whole but lacks the freshness the first brought and just adds CGI gunk in its place.
And for the love of god, can we put a moratorium on movies and shows using “Holding Out For A Hero”. It’s been done to death. Make it stop.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is in Irish cinemas from 17th March.