Released: 17 March 2023
Director: David F. Sandberg
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $110 to 125 million
Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Lucy Liu, Grace Caroline Currey, Helen Mirren, and Djimon Hounsou
Troubled orphan turned magically-empowered superhero Billy Batson/Shazam (Angel/Levi) struggles to keep his adopted family together as a superhuman team. However, when the daughters of Atlas – led by Hespera (Mirren) and Kalypso (Liu) – arrive seeking to reclaim the Wizard’s (Hounsou) powers, Billy and his family must come together to defend their city and reinforce their bond.
In a bid to cash in on the success of Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman, Fawcett Publications drafted ideas for their own colourful superheroes, each imbued with the powers of Greco-Roman Gods, before Ralph Daigh combined them into a superpowered entity to rival Superman eventually dubbed Captain Marvel. While battling legal issues around his name, Captain Marvel and his colourful extended family joined DC Comics and found some success on the small screen with the 1970’s live-action television show. Initially, Captain Marvel’s big-screen debut was to feature former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Teth-Adam/Black Adam, though the project lingered in Development Hell before director David F. Sandberg delivered a critically and commercially successful action/comedy that was soon followed by the mixed reviews of Johnson’s solo Black Adam venture. Plans for a sequel to Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019) began soon after the film’s opening weekend, with star Zachary Levi and many of his co-stars signed on to return for multiple films. Mark Strong was revealed to not be returning, and Sandberg was forced to cut classic Shazam villain Mister Mind from the script to keep the focus on the family dynamic and the battle against Atlas’s daughters, with veteran actress Helen Mirren landing a prominent role as Hespera. Although the sequel was delayed numerous times thanks to the impact and fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shazam! Fury of the Gods finally released earlier this month but, as of this writing, hajust barely cleared $100 million at the box office. Reviews also appear somewhat mixed; some saw it as corny, but harmless, fun, while others regarded it as one of the worst DCEU movies ever made. Although newly-appointed DCEU head honcho James Gunn expressed interest in continuing Shazam’s story in future films, director David F. Sandberg stated this would depend on the film’s reception and hinted that he was burned out with superhero films after seeing the mixed critical response to the movie.
I really enjoyed Shazam!; even now, it’s one of the better DCEU films since it really embraced the colourful spirit of the character and delivered not only some surprisingly poignant messages about friendship and family but stood as a stark contrast to the rest of the disappointingly bleak and gritty DCEU. Now, I’m not against this in principle; a great way for the DCEU to stand out against the Marvel films is to adopt a more mature and darker aesthetic, but that tone doesn’t work for every superhero. As much as I loved Henry Cavill as Superman, for instance, I don’t really enjoy seeing him moping about, barely saying a word, and being openly, routinely, and publicly criticised; similarly, while I like the idea of Ben Affleck’s older, jaded Batman, it’s not really true to Batman’s character to have him swearing and running around murdering everyone but his most iconic villains. Thus, yeah, sue me; I was all onboard for a more jovial adventure and, for me, movies like Shazam! and Aquaman (Wan, 2018) and even Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017) represented the direction I wanted the DCU to steer towards. Although I was annoyed and disappointed to find that Black Adam wouldn’t feature in the Shazam! sequel, especially as that would’ve made perfect sense and would’ve been a great way to expand on the lore established in the first film, I was still excited for it as I enjoyed the goofy humour, carefree action, and heartfelt message of Shazam!, especially as it co-existed alongside some surprisingly disturbing scenes.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods picks up about two years after Billy and his adopted siblings – half-crippled Frederick “Freddy” Freeman (Grazer), budding academic Mary Bromfield (Currey), enthusiastic daydreamer Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman), gaming aficionado Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), and introvert homosexual Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand) – defeated Doctor Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) and using their superhero forms, in which they possess the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Since then, this unnamed group have set up a base within the magical Rock of Eternity (an extradimensional cavern that was once home to the Council of Wizards and contains an endless library, countless doors to other realms and locations, and apparently a bitter Wi-Fi signal that most urban areas) and regularly workshop their strategies as superheroes. Unfortunately for them, their hometown of Philadelphia has been less than impressed with their superhero antics; they’re regularly called out for the destruction their blunders causes and it’s safe to say that they don’t have the best reputation. Nor, it turns out, do they have official superhero names or a team name; despite the fact that the Wizard clearly told Billy what his name was in the last film, a major side plot in Shazam! Fury of the Gods revolves around him – and his siblings – trying to settle on an appropriate name, something that vaguely ties into a general sense of teenage identity and the group forging a name for themselves individually and collectively, but primarily ends up being an extended commentary on how the characters are incapable of telling people their superhero names without turning to and from their child and adult forms.
Oddly, Billy Batson is strangely absent from the film; he spends the majority of the movie in his superhuman form though, thankfully, there’s less of a disparity between the two; Shazam still acts like more of a man-child than Billy, but it no longer feels like they’re two completely different characters and there’s even an acknowledgement that he rarely employs the wisdom of Solomon and instead relies on his family, specifically Mary, to help him make decisions). On the cusp of turning eighteen, Billy is afraid that the only family he’s ever had will turf him out once he’s no longer legally obligated to remain under the care of his loving foster parents, Rosa and Victor Vásquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) and, since he’s been abandoned by everyone he’s ever loved up until this point, he’s holding on a little too tight, trying a little too hard, to keep his family together both in and out of costume. This is causes some tension between him and Mary, who it turns out didn’t go off to college (for unspecified reasons but it’s implied to be because of her duties as Mary Marvel), but more explicitly between him and Freddy. Freddy actually has a far larger role here than Billy; he he’s eager to go out on his own as “Captain Everypower” (Adam Brody) and, despite his love and friendship for Billy, can’t help but feel suffocated by Billy’s insecurities. When he meets and falls for new girl Anne (Rachel Zegler), Freddy gets an opportunity to stand on his own and forge his own path, one where his quirky, awkward sense of humour and encyclopaedic knowledge of superheroes is seen as a positive. Even when Anne begrudgingly betrays him and reveals herself to be the 6000-year-old Anthea, the third daughter of Atlas who wields the confusing (but visually impressive) power to rearrange the environment at will, and loses his powers to the Wizard’s staff, Fredy continues to play a prominent role. Imprisoned in a dungeon is the desolate realm of the Gods, Freddy teams up with the depowered but randomly very much alive Wizard in a bid to stop the daughters of Atlas from destroying Earth, thereby showing his heroism even without his amazing powers.
The daughters of Atlas are, as far as I am aware, brand-new characters for this movie; rather than deliver on the promise of the Monster Society of Evil, led by Mister Mind (David F. Sandberg) teased at the end of the last movie (and this one), or include a throwdown against Black Adam, Billy and his family must contend with Hespera and Kalypso, the enraged daughters of Zeus who Billy unknowingly freed from confinement when he destroy the Wizard’s staff in the last movie. Hespera, who wields the power of the elements, is capable of turning men to stone and even encases much of Philadelphia in an impenetrable dome, to say nothing of being able to instantly nerf the Shazam Family with the Wizard’s reconstructed staff in a bid to rob them of the powers she feels they are unworthy to possess. While both she and Kalypso have a grudge against the Wizard and his Champions for stealing the power of the Gods, Kalypso is the only one of them driven by an inconsolable rage; able to twist the mind’s of others and bend them to her will, Kalypso isn’t satisfied with merely reclaiming the powers and the lost seed that will restore their world and instead turns on her sisters, planting the seed on Earth and birthing not only a legion of demonic, mythological creatures (including harpies, chimeras, and cyclopes) but also commanding the terrifying dragon Ladon, a being so immensely powerful that it cripples its prey by literally emanating fear and is cable to charbroil Shazam’s costume with is magical fire breath. Although Hespera attempts to oppose Kalypso’s plot, suggesting she has some morals, both characters are painfully one-dimensional and rely solely on the star power of their actors and the impressive visuals of their costumes and powers. Their anger is justified, and the power is more than a match for the Champions, especially as they’re able to remove their powers at will, and yet all too often the battle against them boils down to simple stuff like manhandling them or blasting them with lightning.
Shazam! surprised me with it’s poignant message about family; Billy’s arc of being a bit of a troublemaker who had no interest in forging ties with anyone as he was determined to find his mother, only to discover that his true family lay in his adopted home, really separated the film from other superhero productions. In that respect, I can somewhat understand why Billy takes a bit of a backseat here; however, the name of the movie is Shazam! so I was surprised to see that Billy’s arc was more concerned with him not being such a control freak and learning to trust that he’s accepted within his family unit, and that more of the film focused on Freddy. As a result, there really isn’t much for his other siblings to do: Mary expresses frustration at having missed out on college but otherwise remains loyal to her siblings, with no real explanation given as to why she didn’t go or resolution to this plot thread; Pedro randomly blurts out that he’s gay and is immediately accepted by his family, with his only other characteristic being that even his superhero persona (D. J. Cotrona) sucks at dodging. Although Eugene is reduced to exploring the many doors in the Rock of Eternity, this doesn’t really factor into the plot in a meaningful way, though Darla is able to help the depowered Champions assist Shazam in the finale by randomly tracking down a herd of unicorns (strangely the only creature the mythological demons fear) and taming them with Skittles. Indeed, as much as I enjoy the Shazam Family, their colourful costumes, youthful demeanours, and fun dynamic, I can’t help but feel like there’s too many of them; just Billy, Freddy, and Mary would be enough, I think, as the other siblings are just left making up the numbers.
Thankfully, there’s some decent action, effects, and visuals on offer here that help to keep the film entertaining. The Shazam costumes have been tweaked and now look better than ever (though Zachary Levi continues to look a little out of proportion, especially in the head and neck area), and I loved that we get to see more of the Rock of Eternity. The Champions have pimped it out with TVs and games and such, but the depths hide doorways to strange dimensions and a library full of flying books and home to a helpful magic pen named Steve. When the Champions are in action, they work pretty well together; there’s not a huge amount of forethought to their strategy, which mainly boils down to saving as many people as possibly and trying to prevent greater damage and results in a fair amount of resentment as they’d unable to fulfil this latter objective, but it like that Shazam tried to do post-mission team talks to help them improve as a group. Each of them exhibits the same powers, including flight, super strength and speed, and the ability to shoot lighting from their hands, but all of them are rendered powerless at various points throughout the film (with the exception of Billy) and are forced to find other means to help out. As fun as it is to see Shazam fist fight a dragon and slam it through a building, and as impressive as Ladon’s effects are, the CGI takes a serious hit once Kalypso raises her army of monsters. These scenes, and the opening heist in a museum, recall the disturbing violence perpetrated by the Seven Deadly Sins in the first film but are somehow rendered a little more toothless thanks to the mythological creatures lacking substance and looking a little too cartoonish. The daughters of Atlas showcase ill-defined powers that make for some interesting visuals, such as Hespera turning a room full of people to stone and Kalypso cutting through the skyline on Ladon’s back, but I’m still confused by Anthea’s powers. She appears to be able to rearrange buildings and the environment to confuse, teleport, and attack her foes, but at the same time she isn’t actually rearranging the city as it returns to normal and these powers are rendered mute when she tries to avoid Kalypso’s depowering shot only for the bolt to find her anyway.
Despite Freddy’s best efforts, the daughters of Atlas are able to retrieve the seed from the Rock of Eternity after Hespera allows herself to get captured and the Champions just…forget that she’s a God of immense power and believe a simple cage will hold her. From the seed spawns a corrupted Tree of Life and, from that, Kalypso’s demonic creatures, which lay siege to Philadelphia and force the depowered Champions to recruit the aid of a herd of unicorns to help create a distraction for Shazam, the last empowered Champion standing. Thanks to this, and his own unique blend of distraction and fighting, Shazam is able to retrieve the Wizard’s staff from Kalypso; realising that the staff absorbs magical power and can be used to destroy the Tree of Life, Shazam convinces the dying Hespera to help him contain the force of the explosion by reducing the protective dome to a small area, trapping himself, Kalypso, and Ladon within and preparing to sacrifice himself after a tearful farewell to his family. The bold move is successful; the Tree of Life is destroyed, taking all the mythological creatures with it and reducing the slighted Gods to ash, however Billy is killed in the process. Heartbroken, his family lay him to rest in the desolate God world but, at the very last second, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) conveniently shows up (since Billy had been pestering her for a date throughout the film) and uses her divine power to restore the God world, and Shazam, to life, thereby allowing the Champions to return to action and the Wizard to begin exploring man’s world. This deus ex machina of a cameo really didn’t sit right with me; I think if they were going to do that, it would’ve been better to have Wonder Woman show up right as Billy lay dead on the battlefield rather than waste time pretending like he’s really gone, and it takes away from the characters to have all their problems solved so easily. Compounding matters are the two completely pointless post-credit scenes in which Shazam is approached about joining the Justice Society and Dr. Sivana continues to plot with Mr. Mind, two plot threads that I really doubt we’ll ever see resolved in the near future.
To say I was disappointed by Shazam! Fury of the Gods would be a bit of an understatement. In many ways, I don’t think it’s fair to punish the film because egos, politics, and production shenanigans meant that we couldn’t see Black Adam in this film…but man, would have made so much more sense for Black Adam to have been introduced here, or at least show up looking to reclaim the power of the Gods from unworthy children, and therefore give the Champions a far more charismatic and interesting threat to go up against. There’s a lot to like here regardless, such as the expansion of this more colourful corner of the DCEU, the dynamic between the Champions, and Billy’s relationship to his family. I especially liked Freddy’s side plot of him wanting to strike out on his own, and Billy learning that he’ll always have a place with his family, but it’s very strange to see so little of Billy in the film. I equally found it odd that at least one of the characters, such as Mary, didn’t express relief at losing their powers and exploring what it meant to return to a more normal life. While the visuals were impressive for the most part, things got really muddled and CGI heavy once the digital minions swarmed the streets and the villains, while slightly compelling in their motivations, just didn’t interest me as much as I think the filmmakers were hoping for given the actors cast in those roles. I also feel like it’s hard to really care that much about Shazam! Fury of the Gods as we have no idea if these characters have a place in the DCEU going forward, resulting in a decent enough movie that just felt lacking in some areas; it’s a good companion piece to the first one, which I guess is a positive, but didn’t really impress in the same way and so, ultimately, I ended up feeling a little disappointed with the final product.
Did you enjoy Shazam! Fury of the Gods? Were you disappointed at Billy’s absence in the film? What did you think to his character arc and Freddy’s solo ventures? Do you agree that there are too many characters in the film to sustain the plot? What did you think to the daughters of Atlas, their powers and motivations, and were you disappointed that Black Adam or the Monster Society of Evil didn’t feature in the film? Where do you think we’ll see Shazam next, if at all, in the revamped DCEU? Whatever your thoughts on Shazam! Fury of the Gods, feel free to drop them below or leave a comment on my social media.