SHAZAM! Fury of the Gods
When you think of the word ‘Shazam’, chances are, nowadays, it may take you back to the young boy who can turn into a fully built, able-bodied adult superhero by shouting the word, Shazam. The connections became even more infectious after a movie was made off it in 2019, and it’s understandable why. The story about a young boy named Billy Batson, who gained his superhero powers after living as an orphan whose mother had neglected him, amounted to an offbeat, off-kilter, but still stylish and distinctive take on superhero origin stories. More impressively, the movie employed the possibilities to be gained from a kid who discovered he could do adult things in an adult’s body that he usually wouldn’t have done as a kid. This film took advantage of the many vital elements this setup invited, and the result was a terrific superhero flick that’s up there with such flicks as Wonder Woman and The Suicide Squad… besides all the films starring Batman and Superman, of course.
Now, four years later, Billy Batson and his friends have returned for another full-on outing of mythical proportions. As for what it delivered? I’d say it tried and failed to cast such a spell… but let me lay out the story first.
Now equipped with extensive superpowers, Billy Batson and all his friends, including Mary, Eugene, Pedro, Darla, and his best friend, Freddy, all tried to get the hang of being superheroes capable enough of solving every crime all at once, even though it was easier said than done. But it’s not just the difficulties at hand that put them at a standstill. As the kids aged and still lived in a foster home without adoptive parents, they were at risk of being ineligible to live in foster homes due to their age, and even Mary had prepared herself to apply to college soon. Plus, Freddy started to experience his first love in school when he ran into a girl named Anne, and the rest of the kids began drifting away from each other because of their newfound passions. Having abandonment issues because of her irresponsible mother, Billy was wigged out by this and did his best to keep the family together and keep them from drifting too far apart.
Meanwhile, in another part of the word, not to mention the realm, a couple of Greek ladies, who turned out to have been the Daughters of Atlas, emerged to steal the split-in-two staff that Billy broke in the last film, starting with swiping it from a Greek museum. That scene, I’m convinced, had functioned out of the movie’s willingness to play by Killmonger’s ‘break-and-enter’ rulebook. The Daughters wanted the staff’s power for their gain and decided to do so by seeking the help of Shazam, the wizard from the last movie, despite having seemingly evaporated and turned to dust back then. Unfortunately, the Daughters successfully manipulated him into repairing the staff with a cursed incantation spell that would’ve brainwashed their victims into doing their will. Although the wizard lost the staff while in his cell, he saved a splinter in his finger and used it to warn Billy Batson and his friends of the impending doom coming near them. Billy caught on to this, especially Freddy, who became the Daughters’ next victim after being foiled by Anne, who turned out to have been one of the Daughters herself, named Anthea.
Now, Billy and his friends debated over how to retrieve Freddy while thinking hard about potential methods to retrieve Freddy without any significant consequences. Finally, after they endured plenty of back-and-forth fistfights with the Daughters, not to mention failed attempts to return Freddy, the Daughters all made their way into Philadelphia. One of the sisters, Kalypso, was the most desperate to claim this as their new territory as payback for what she claimed humanity had done to her, her sisters, and their father, the titan Atlas. So, with the fabled Golden Apple in their possession, along with a giant stone dragon that formulated under Kalypso’s magic and a massive barrier that kept a good portion of Philadelphia as well as Billy and his friends under their grasp, the Shazams, or, as they’re called collectively, the Shazamily, all had to band together to rescue Freddy, stop the Daughters, and of course, ward their way through a whole crowd of mythical creatures unleashed under the Daughters’ influence. You name it, the Gryphon, the minotaur, the Cyclops, the harpies, even the unicorns, they’re all wreaking havoc throughout Philadelphia. Will the Shazamily succeed? Will Philadelphia be in safe hands once again? And is there more to the unicorns than meets the eye?
When I first saw this movie, I was dumbfounded by how much it prioritized the action over the characterizations and depth, even compared to the first Shazam. It almost felt like Black Adam, which suffered the same problem of lunging straight toward the action without dedicating enough time to the characters to add up to a worthwhile superhero flick. But even then, with Shazam: Fury of the Gods, it did take some time to show us the characters for who they were and who they became, but I can’t help but feel like it didn’t do so with as much commitment as the first film did.
Overall, I’d say that the movie initially seemed goofy and action-packed but only got better as it went on.
Before I talk about that, let’s talk about the action itself. As is usually expected in a superhero movie, Shazam: Fury of the Gods came packed with all the magical elements, high-scale dilemmas, and even some personal drama necessary to invite some intrigue in a movie about a bunch of kids who can turn into adults fighting off against a few Greek warriors. At times, the movie didn’t carry as much oomph as the first film, probably because the action concerning the villains felt cartoony, while the heroes and their troubles seemed a little more realistic. The Daughters only lunged their way into the movie and Shazam’s life with powers only Greek gods would’ve yielded as they unleashed them in their pursuit to overtake the world by force, even if it was Kalypso’s quest more than it was that of her, Hespera, and Anthea altogether.
However, I believe the action improved and became more effective as it neared the climax. Despite the more fantastical elements running rampant, the stakes became more personal the longer the fight went on. Among other things, Anthea started second-guessing her sisters’ commitments, especially those of Kalyspo, and was suddenly stripped of her powers in response. It means it left her in a state of mortality on par with that of Freddy, if not more horribly by comparison on account of his disability. And without giving anything away, all I can say is that when it came time to the ultimate showdown, Billy, as Shazam, used up his remaining strength to outwit and overpower the Daughters and the dragon on which they rode to save the city. How? I don’t want to tell you, but to make a long story short, this was where it emulated more of what the rest of the movie would’ve been capable of pulling off.
Also, the visual effects felt impressive. They’re as good as any you’d find out of a superhero movie, though I feel like the effects are more on a level between the two Black Panther movies. They helped the otherwise fantastical elements throughout the film seem legible and natural. And at one point, we’re treated to the interior of what looks like a giant, magical library with flying books and scriptures everywhere, even though it looks too much like something out of Hogwarts. Unimaginative as this location is, though, the self-writing pen felt like the trippiest magical element to shine throughout the movie. Everything that whoever’s asking it to write down wants to be written down, the pen would immediately have written it down as they said it. Sometimes, it led to crucial day saving, but it also played another role I’ll address here shortly.
The acting by everyone felt generally adequate. There wasn’t any performance I can think of that didn’t work, and some of the actors did well with what they could’ve exercised out of their roles. But it felt a tad more uneven than in the last movie. Asher Angel still exuberated in his teenage boy mannerisms and dealt with his problems as he generally did whenever he was out of his Shazam persona. Typically, people would’ve felt weirded out by him having aged after being used to how he was in the last Shazam, not to mention all three seasons of Andi Mack. But that didn’t bother me. He was still the same actor and still found ways to keep Billy Batson engaging enough for me to want to know what’ll happen next in his and his family’s life. Besides the whole acting-while-aging scenario, I’m used to this after watching Stranger Things all the way through.
The actor playing Freddy, Jack Dylan Grazer, was a wild and generally energetic kid. You can tell he had a lot on his mind concerning his superhero duties, new love life, and commitment to Billy Batson. Most of the time, he was in a histrionic state, but given how subject he was to all the mythical goings-on around him, that can be understandable.
The actress playing Mary, Grace Caroline Currey, had enough respectability to help her come across as the more reasonable group member, knocking some sense into her friends, especially Billy, about what’s more important at any given moment. The actor playing Freddy as an adult, Adam Brody, gave off a vibe like he was the kind of guy Freddy wished he could be: physically built, wise, strong, and able to resolve any situation by any means necessary, whether it’s with his fists or his speeches. The actress playing the adult version of Darla, Meagan Good, showed herself off with the bit of dignity apparent throughout the rest of the Shazam family, but what made her stand out to me was when she was still gushing over some kittens as she was helping save the citizens from a collapsing bridge at the beginning of the movie. So, to watch this actress still act like a little kid over girly things felt funny to watch.
Once again, Zachary Levi knew how to take Billy Batson’s character as an adult superhero and still convey him with the same skittishness, awkward timing, and overwhelmed reactions as any teenager would’ve expressed in a heavy-duty situation. And having been a comedian, he generally excelled at infusing his deliveries with an element of levity to lighten the mood at mostly the right time. This time, however, I don’t know if it was the acting, the director, or what have you, but there’ve been a few occasions where the acting from everyone didn’t land as many bullseyes as in the first film.
Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu were terrific as the Daughters of Atlas, down to their intimidating moments. Helen Mirren played Hespera with more savviness, while Lucy Liu played Kalypso with more apparent disdain and vengefulness in her tone. At first, these two worked off each other like they were on the same page, only to feel more distant when their motivations were made more evident, especially to Anthea. Speaking of whom, the actress playing her, Rachel Zegler, was excellent in conveying a more sympathetic, conflicted Daughter, who still felt like she had a duty on her hands to honor her late father, Atlas’, wishes with her sisters, but her experiences with humanity firsthand started opening her eyes to its complexity as she realized how humanity isn’t nearly as loathsome as her sisters, especially Calypso, said they were. In a way, this made their camaraderie feel on par with that which the Shazamily had; wanting to be on the page but kept struggling to do so because of different ideals and pursuits.
As for the movie’s comedic elements, they also came in mixed doses, but when they did get a laugh, boy, did they deliver on plenty of those, mainly through the self-writing pen.
I said earlier about the self-writing pen that it can write down whatever the speaker was saying at their request. But what made these scenes funnier was that the pen tended to write down everything being said, even if what was being said wasn’t meant to be part of the message the speaker meant to send out. It even led to a funny scene where Hespera, after receiving a bird letter from Shazam demanding Freddy’s safe return, read the letter to her sisters, Freddy, and the wizard, including phrases and sentences that were being said off-track and squeezed into the rest of the message. The way it was written sounded equivalent to someone struggling to use the Dictate tool on their phone or tablet, and Mirren’s delivery of that message was as humorously awkward as it sounds.
Other times, however, the comedy did tend to fall flat. There’s one recurring instance throughout the movie where Billy, still as Shazam, struggled to think of a respected name for his superhero self, whipping out various names that he thought would’ve carried a decent superhero fanfare vibe. He even asked the wizard when he was first in contact with him about what his name was or should be, and again with varying success. Even then, though, it led to one scene where the bystanders who saw him save the day shouted various names to him, as did one who just said what Shazam’s original name was: Captain Marvel. The joke here was that he said it to him in an offhanded, unknowledgeable manner, similarly to how Ant-Man was confused for Spider-Man in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Also, speaking of names, I find it weird that both the wizard and Billy’s adult self were named Shazam. I’ll admit, I’m no expert on Greek mythology, and I’m definitely not familiar with the comics, but what forces would’ve occurred for them both to share the same name? Would they have been named this way because they were given their gifts by those whose names correlated to what Shazam’s name stood for as they granted them such gifts? That’s my theory, anyway.
The characters varied in their participation in the larger story and the mythical essence at play throughout the movie. As I said, Freddy seemed like a hyperactive kid with a bad rap because he always walked around on crutches, especially in school. But even while in danger or in the middle of the battlefield, he still expressed commitment to those who mattered to him, whether it be Anthea, despite their uneven romantic terrain because of her betrayal, or Billy.
The other kids, however, just felt a tad standard and didn’t leave very much of an imprint to leave a lasting effect throughout the movie. Which I think is a shame because I recall the kids being slightly identifiable and exciting enough individually in the first film. Mary, being the oldest, still had a slight authority within the gang and was preparing to grow up when she anticipated her college studies despite Billy’s feelings for her. Pedro didn’t feel very memorable outside of blurting out to his kids and de-facto parents all at once that he was gay.
On the other hand, Darla still maintained her memorably oddball quirks like in the last movie. She was a quirky but bright little kid who always lit up whenever she approached something that lurked within her fantastical comfort zone, and when you watch her do it in more dire scenarios, it seemed a bit childish yet funny sometimes.
And when the kids became the adult superheroes, they all carried the same amount of camaraderie with one another, as well as unique individual elements on their own, to stand out as a respectable community of superheroes committed to saving the day, despite them all still being kids in adults’ bodies.
But once again, Billy Batson arguably provided the movie’s heart. When he wasn’t busy navigating his superhero powers, his abilities as an adult superhero, or confronting far bigger adversaries than he was used to, Billy reached rocky terrain as far as his relationship with his foster home buddies was concerned as they all grew up and started slowly drifting away from each other due to other interests and taking on responsibilities in their own time. Because of his awful past with his mother, Billy fretted over the likelihood of his friends and family drifting apart from him, as he always said the catchphrase, “All or none!” He made it a small motto in this movie because that’s what he believed in concerning what he tried desperately to uphold for himself and his buddies. And when he faced various trials that tested his strength and resilience whenever they were in danger, it pushed his boundaries and showcased what was on the line for him because of his and his friends’ ever-expanding public involvement in crimefighting.
Rosa and Victor Vásquez, though they’re technically the owners of the foster home that the kids lived in, still acted like they usually would’ve when looking after a group of kids and getting used to the idea of mythical beings and warriors emerging into their life and home. Although the deliveries of their reactions to when they found out that their kids could turn into adult superheroes were a mixed bag, their reactions still ranged from being humorous to touching when comprehending each superhero’s secret identity.
The Daughters of Atlas were stylish villains, but their motivations were all over the place. The Daughters say they did what they did and retrieved the staff from the wizard to avenge Atlas for what humanity, or the gods, have done to them. This motivation would’ve been intriguing and engaging, but their background and reasons for wanting to take over the world on Atlas’ behalf were not dwelled on for long. For that reason, they all came across as cartoonish villains. Helen Mirren’s character, Hespera, felt the most committed, constantly processing what went on in front of her and her sisters level-headedly and always coming up with solutions for their plan to come forth.
On the other hand, Lucy Liu’s character, Kalypso, felt like the fiercest, most ruthless of the Daughters, as she was the most determined to take over the world, complete with planting the last golden apple into the spot that she felt was perfect for the blossoming of the Tree of Life, by enacting retribution against humanity itself, for she believed that it was corruptible and unfit to be saved. Meanwhile, the other sister, Anthea, displayed pure sympathetic qualities in her character. She met Freddy at school disguised as Anne and developed feelings for him before revealing herself as one of the Daughters who can warp locations at her will. For all her dedication to the mission, even she could sense that the solutions and plans, mainly as Kalypso carried them out, were starting to not feel right. Whether through Freddy or her personal experiences with humanity, this made her the most complex and compelling Daughter of Atlas in the movie. It’s too bad the other two Daughters weren’t given the same roundness and character exposition as she did.
However, considering all the talk and portrayals of Greek mythology and their role play throughout the movie, it all built up to a genuinely surprising cameo: Gal Gadot as Diana, or Wonder Woman. Billy started fantasizing about her and sometimes mentioned her on more than one occasion, but they generally didn’t have as much relevance as they could in a movie dealing with the mighty Daughters of Atlas. But after Billy helped save the day and destroy the dragon and Kalypso, it came at the cost of his own life, and he was buried shortly afterward. But then, right behind Billy’s grieving family, Diana showed up to claim the staff from the wizard, restore life to the otherwise decrepit Greek site around them, restore Anthea’s reality-bending powers to her, and of course, bring Billy back to life. After that, Billy, still in his Shazam mode, tried to make some witty chitchat with Wonder Woman, but with mixed results. In response, she merely gave Billy some advice and then left. Plus, Billy said he wondered if she had received his bird letter to her. It may sound like nothing, but that got me thinking. I know Billy was having too much fun writing with the self-writing pen when writing bird letters. So, I wonder, because he knew that he wouldn’t have survived his encounter with Kalypso and the dragon, did he write to Diana in advance, knowing that maybe she would’ve had the capabilities of a god necessary to spare him from eternal death? Besides just wanting to meet her in person, anyway?
My mind is all over the board regarding her involvement in this movie. First, it’s fantastic to see Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman again in this movie after seeing her shine in her own two films. And knowing that the future of Wonder Woman in film may get a little more complicated because of what the now-DC-head James Gunn had in mind makes her appearance feel even more welcomed. Even compared to the last film, where we got a simple cameo from Superman from the neck down, and nothing more, Wonder Woman had a small but no less potent role in the story development, which was tremendous by comparison. However, if I had to compare her cameo to those in something like Thor: Ragnarok, her cameo felt more like that of Doctor Strange than it did the Hulk. Or rather, her cameo felt more like Daredevil’s cameo in Spider-Man: No Way Home than the two other Spider-Men who joined Peter Parker. I think it all boiled down to the length of time she spent in this movie. And because the film delved so much into Greek mythology and how connected they were to each other, a part of me wished that Wonder Woman was more involved in the movie, if for no other reason than to strengthen such Greek connections. What were the Amazons to concerning Atlas or his daughters? What kind of relationship could she have developed with the Shazam family had she spent more time with them, especially Billy? I don’t know, I feel like her cameo was still terrific, but it left me wanting more.
Whatever the case, however, a lot was riding on Shazam’s follow-up’s shoulders as it had the tricky honors of upping the stakes while still honing its attention on the superheroes it’s supposed to be about and the villains they had to confront. But while the returning actors provided enough wit, charm, and admirable factors to keep their magic alive and well, other factors bogged down what made the first film so beloved here in the hopes of making them feel legible when really, they tended to clash more than once. But it wasn’t a total dud; the action was still mesmerizing, the effects were neat, many of the returning characters were likable, the acting was still above par, and the movie’s sense of humor brought out more laughs than it did silent moments.
There’s no magic word to make this the follow-up that Shazam deserved, but its quirk complimented the characters and the first film effectively enough to creep into marginal greatness.