Director: David F. Sandberg
Writers: Henry Gayden, Chris Morgan
Cast: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Rachel Zegler, Adam Brody, Ross Butler, Meagan Good, Lucy Liu, Djimon Hounsou, Helen Mirren
At one point in Shazam: Fury of the Gods, the city of Philadelphia is sealed within a giant magical dome, a nifty visual that encapsulates how self-contained this franchise is. There’s no danger of the sprawling tentacles of the multiverse here. Following the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy, this sequel to 2019 film Shazam reaches for the scale and sweep of a Gods and Monsters epic, but still roots it in the intimacy of a family drama.
Years of childhood trauma have left young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) dealing with Imposter Syndrome, and if he holds onto his new family a little too tight, it’s only because he’s afraid they might leave him. Meanwhile, fellow foster child Freddy Freeman (sarcastic standout Jack Dylan Grazer) is so enamoured by his newfound powers only because the real world conspires to remind him how weak and vulnerable he really is. The two boys and their family must face off against the daughters of Atlas (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and a third actress whose identity counts as a spoiler), out for revenge against the people who now possess their parents’ stolen powers.
Director David F. Sandberg keeps the film light, with the peppered-in quips — a now-default tone of superhero movies — still managing to feel fresh because they’re delivered by snarky teens using humour as a defence mechanism rather than adults uncomfortable with genuine emotion and insistent on undercutting it with jokes. (A Destiny’s Child namedrop is impeccably timed.) Sandberg also crafts worlds, including an endless library, and mythical creatures such as harpies, minotaurs and unicorns, which feel real and tangible as opposed to the current standard of green-screen goop. Where an antagonist tipping over from reasonable into all-out evil to underline their villain status might grate in a Marvel show (I’m thinking of Karli Morgenthau of the Flag Smashers going from caring for immigrants to setting off bombs), the same doesn’t in this film, if only because writers Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan telegraph their characters’ impulses better.
The film is pleasant enough, but the consistency of this pleasantness sometimes chafes — it never truly feels tense, even when the stakes are raised, increment by increment. It’s the kind of sweetness that dissipates as soon as the movie ends, rather than solidifying into something substantial. The film doesn’t lean into the promised fury of its title either as the daughters’ quest for revenge isn’t imbued with the narrative gravitas it deserves. Fury of the Gods clips along, even as it gleefully leaves behind a trail of destruction, buildings reduced to rubble and dragonfire. The one truly dark detour this film takes involves an induced suicide, though Sandberg (who previously directed Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) leaves the horrors implied instead of depicted. While the film’s structure avoids big exposition dumps, this parceling out of information means that questions arise with a nagging urgency, only to be answered much later.
The breezy, lighthearted Shazam (2019), in which an orphan too jaded to play make-believe found himself cast in the ultimate fantasy of being bestowed with superpowers, was a giddy delight. Here was DC’s antidote to the convoluted machinations of Batman v Superman (2016), the serviceable Justice League (2017) — the reworked cut of which revealed the full extent to which its heart and soul had been carved out — and the sloppy patchwork assembly that was Suicide Squad (2016). Shazam took its characters seriously but never itself, and that was crucial. It could poke fun at comic book tropes while also affectionately indulging in them. It didn’t have to pretend that other superheroes didn’t exist in this universe, but it also wasn’t bound by franchise mandates of having to introduce them in this instalment. It could pit the inherent individualism of a lone-wolf lifestyle that accompanied superhero living against its characters’ desperate desire to find a family.
The sequel, which sticks to all of these beats, is still an enjoyable enough time at the movies and one of the few sunny spots in a muddled DCEU and an increasingly grim, confounding superhero landscape at large. At a time when the DC universe is being restructured and there’s no word on whether a third Shazam film fits into its larger ambitions, it’s one superhero franchise that could stand saving.