Shazam! Fury of the Gods Review: Sandbagged Sandberg?

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for Shazam! Fury of the Gods!

When it comes to the tone that DC films need, David F. Sandberg just might be the master. Between the extremes of the bombastic Zack Snyder and the dirty joke-minded James Gunn, Sandberg understands the balance between family friendly and just-scary-enough as well as any filmmaker since young Steven Spielberg. It’s what made the first Shazam! such an underrated gem, and the most charming entry in the soon-to-expire DCEU. The good news is that he maintains that vibe for the sequel, Fury of the Gods.

The bad news is the story gets away from him this time. That could be because of factors beyond his control, like Dwayne Johnson turning it down despite both Shazam! and Black Adam teasing ties. Or simply alternate choices, like when the gods make Helen Mirren available, are you really going to say no? The most obvious difference, however, is that the first film’s co-writer, Henry Gayden, now has a new collaborator in Chris Morgan (Fast and Furious parts 3-10, but not 9). Without presuming to know who wrote what, it may not come as a surprise that this veers into more conventional blockbuster territory towards the end, and invests very little time in giving its villains much character.

Balancing six heroes can’t be easy, especially when all but one are played by two actors apiece. It’s therefore understandable that Gayden and Morgan find as many ways to separate and depower them as possible, and to Sandberg’s credit that he nonetheless manages to give everyone in the ensemble at least one worthwhile moment. Considering that they’re competing with a scene-stealing sentient pen named Steve, and a giant dragon made of wood, that’s no small task.

As the movie begins, the “Shazamily” (Zachary Levi, Meagan Good, Adam Brody, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, and Grace Fulton as adults; Asher Angel, Faithe Herman, Jack Dylan Grazer, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, and Fulton again as young adults) are enjoying their powers but facing challenges. Being amateurs, able to save lives but not deal well with major disasters, they’ve been dubbed the “Philadelphia Fiascos” by local media. Shazam/Billy wants them to function better as a team, and tries to serve as both coach and quarterback, but his siblings quickly tire of what seem like insecure lectures.

Meanwhile, goddesses Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), daughters of the titan Atlas, reveal themselves as former wielders of the power once held in the staff of the wizard (Djimon Hounsou). It’s the latest iteration of a centuries old battle between gods, wizards, and humans, and they want to take the power back. While they make unsubtle power moves in full ancient regalia, their other sister, Anthea (Rachel Zegler) goes undercover at the local high school to try to suss out who the local superheroes might be.

The story’s most interesting when it divides its time between the realms of the gods and humans, with different heroes going for different goals. The inevitable climax then mostly goes as predictably as such things do, albeit with one of the best bits of product placement in recent memory, and some cool Harryhausen-ish monsters. The world-destroying plan seems awfully small-scale, like it wouldn’t even destroy the entirety of Philadelphia, let alone anywhere beyond.

And that’s part of the larger villain problem. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because Sivana was so, so good and well-developed in the first film, but Hespera and Kalypso are as underwritten as C-grade Marvel baddies like Malekith. Anthea actually gets more to do and more complex motivations. Her onscreen sisters, however, are dependent upon Mirren and Liu’s star power to add another note to their characters. Mirren prevails simply by being herself deadpanning ridiculous dialogue seriously.

Liu doesn’t have the same gravitas-vs-humor contrast, and just recites her lines in a bombastic monotone. The convoluted mythology of their backstory is told rather than shown, and aside from just the general rudeness of superpower-theft — which doesn’t stop them from being insanely overpowered anyway — we never really feel why they’re so offended.

Ironically, Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam would have been a better foe. Also ironically, there’s still an allusion to the events of his film, even as that’s likely to go nowhere. Note that DC FanDome jokes to the contrary, there does not appear to be a Sinbad cameo.

Fury of the Gods gets by with a little help from every friend, though, as the adults and kids remain as charming as ever, along with Marta Milans and Cooper Evans as their foster parents. (Meagan Good in particular lives up to her surname, as far as embodying her counterpart.) Even the old wizard gets to develop a bit, and with every adult actor now channeling their younger selves, the charm of overgrown kids becoming super multiplies. Sandberg gets that families come to these movies to see superheroes, more so than their alter-egos, and keeps the stakes simple, with plenty of room to still have fun with the concept.

For exactly two scenes, both of them centered on Anthea, the movie takes note of the parallels between the Shazam siblings and the goddesses…then doesn’t take that much further. Sivana’s righteous rage at missing out on powers was relatable. The thing he was offered was aggressively reneged upon. Privileged immortals losing some power while retaining immortality, flight, magic, and crazy strength? Not so much. At the very least, we need to know more. Subtext about Freddie having more mental strength than most because of the way he deals with handicaps plays stronger. And the way the storyline is retconned into being a direct outcome of the first film is at least clever.

Come for the family dynamics, and the authentic-ringing sibling humor. Stay for some cool monsters, and clever use of fantasy elements in the Rock of Eternity. And hope that if there is a third film, David F. Sandberg or whoever replaces him gets to use an A-list villain next time.

Grade: 3/5

Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens Friday, March 17

Recommended Reading: Shazam: The World’s Mightiest Vol. 1

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