I’m in an optimistic mood, so let’s begin with something good: Shazam: Fury of the Gods improves on a major hang-up I had with its 2019 series-starter, Shazam! The film, a superhero origin story based on the DC comic, starred Asher Angel as Billy Batson, a troubled teen in the foster care system who is granted powers by a Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) that grant him the strength of gods—and put him into the body of an adult (played by Zachary Levi) when he uses them. But while Shazam! possessed a good sense of fun, especially when it came to portraying hapless teens fumbling their way through figuring out abilities beyond their control or comprehension, it never felt like Angel and Levi were playing the same character. The former was too serious, the latter too silly.
That isn’t so much of an issue in the sequel, which is set a couple years after the events of the previous installment, but the reason for that belies a deeper issue with the film: the protagonist spends the bulk of the movie’s runtime in the guise of his himbo alter ego (who is still trying to decide on his what should be extremely obvious superhero name), leaving the drama that comes with being an uncertain almost-18-year-old behind in favor of forced humor and immature antics. Billy is worried about his foster parents (Rosa and Victor Vasquez, played by Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) kicking him out of the house after ages out of the foster care system—even though they clearly hold a lot of love for him, and his older sister Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) stayed on after she turned 18)—and he struggles to hold the family together, as all of his foster siblings have retained the powers they gained at the end of the first movie but have largely moved on to wanting to do their own thing. This is especially true of Billy’s best friend and brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer); physically disabled and socially awkward, he takes refuge in the power his superhero alter ego (played by Adam Brody) grants him.
Naturally, it’s up to Billy and his “Shazamily” to save their city and the world, but despite David F. Sandberg returning to the director’s chair and Henry Gayden retained as a co-writer, Fury of the Gods is far less effective at tying a story with heart to the large-scale conflict. Billy’s personal drama with his family reads as far more minuscule and separate from Earth-hanging-in-the-balance conflict, and if the two had been tied more firmly together, perhaps the emotional stakes would have been as high as the planetary ones. As it stands, the narrative is carried primarily by Levi’s increasingly grating antics and Liu and (especially) Mirren sleepwalking through their villain roles, and that’s not enough to sustain a movie. It doesn’t help that the visual effects and creature designs are uninspired, the climax hinges on what turns into a Skittles ad, and, in a cameo appearance by one of the DCEU’s most iconic heroes, it’s overwhelmingly apparent that the actor was not physically present at the same time as the rest of the cast.
Those real world struggles take a back, back seat to the story’s actual conflict, however, which sort of boils down to this: two of the daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) steal the Wizard’s broken staff from the Acropolis Museum in Athens, bring it to where the Wizard is imprisoned in the God’s Realm, and force him to repair it so they can get revenge for him killing their father. It’s quickly clear, however, that their family is even more fractured than Billy’s. The youngest sister, Anthea (Rachel Zegler) wants to use the powers to repair their realm, Kalypso wants to use them to destroy Earth, and Hespera is sort of caught in between.
Every once in a while, however, the juvenile humor hits in a way that’s both funny and an important reminder that these heroes really are just clueless kids with good intentions (like their constant failure to proofread letters they have dictated to a magic pen). There are standouts in the cast, like the naturally charismatic Grazer and Meagan Good, who plays the adult version of the family’s youngest member Darla with an earnestness that genuinely feels like there’s the mind of a small girl inside her (in a way that Angel and Levi’s performances fail to convince). Hounsou is a trip, and seems to be sincerely having a great time playing the Wizard who is alternately a fish-out-of-water on Earth and also just doesn’t care anymore. It’s a lot more than can be said for the rest of the A-list actors in the cast. Shazam: Fury of the Gods is entertaining enough, but like so many of the superhero movies that have been released recently, the sense of awe and wonder the audience ought to feel staring up at these larger-than-life figures flying across a larger-than-life screen, has all but dissipated.
Shazam: Fury of the Gods is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.