Sunday, May 26, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ is a Middling Step Backwards

Director: David F. Sandberg

Writers: Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan

Stars: Zachary Levi, Lucy Liu, Helen Mirren

Synopsis: The film continues that story of teenage Billy Batson who, upon reciting the magic word “SHAZAM!” is transformed into his adult Super Hero alter ego, Shazam.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is a perfect example of why casting and endings matter in film. Directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan, Shazam! Fury of the Gods follows Billy’s foster family as they defend Philadelphia from the daughters of Atlas. 

Shazam! is one of my favorite DCEU films from the past decade. It meaningfully explored the consequences of rejection, trauma, and found family. The scene where Billy meets his mom in that film still haunts me to this day. Shazam! isn’t the deepest film, but it was an honest film. Zachary Levi’s performance perfectly heightened Billy’s anger, and still is fun to watch. Shazam! Fury of the Gods doesn’t have a tenth of the nuance and maturity that Shazam! had, and it’s a shame. 

Perhaps the biggest misfire in the film is Billy Batson. Zachary Levi brings back the tongue and cheek present in the first film, and yet it doesn’t come across as charming. The writing isn’t doing any favors in this department, as Billy’s arc through the film is relegated to the sidelines until the third act finale. The film opens with Billy talking to his pediatrician about feeling like an imposter in his super-powered family. He has  taken on the role of being a leader, but the rest of the family seems to be less and less interested in being superheroes compared to him. He has placed his self-worth in being viewed as a hero, because in 5 months’ time, he will age out of the foster system, and may not be able to stay with the Vasquez family. This premise is loaded with dramatic subtext, and it would push Billy to grow. And it’s set up wonderfully in the first 14 minutes of the film. And then, it’s sidelined by the arrival of the Daughters of Atlas, who long to take back the power of Shazam that was stolen from their father by the wizard. And this becomes the primary focus of the film for the next 80 minutes. 

Where the first film placed Billy front and center, even allowing him to go on a journey to find his mom in the second act that had no impact on the plot with Dr. Sivana, Shazam! Fury of the Gods never offers this reprieve to its main character. And it shows because Billy is nearly always seen as the transformed Shazam. Asher Angel, who plays the “real” Billy, has less than 7 minutes of screen time this time around, despite Billy being in nearly every scene. It’s tragic, because Angel really taps into the vulnerable side of Billy in his performance, and it matches the tone of the character arc really well. But the film doesn’t make that character arc its core focus. When the daughters of Atlas show up, Shazam doesn’t have the time to reflect, and instead just becomes a loudmouth, and it doesn’t completely work. It especially doesn’t work when the ending relies on the audience having a reverence for Billy, who has been unlikeable throughout the entire film and wasn’t particularly likeable in the last film. Billy is a fascinating character because we watch him grow and mature, and when that growth is cut so we can worship him as a hero, it doesn’t work. 

This contrasts with the great character work on display with every other member of the Vasquez foster family. Freddy is given his own teenage romance plot, which highlights his own insecurities as a disabled teen. Mary is an adult, and it’s reflected both in the story and in her visual design. Firstly, Mary feels the considerable weight of being the oldest kid still a part of the family, offering advice to Billy, and also talking about finding a way to support the family outside of being a superhero. And from a visual perspective, Grace Caroline Currey portrays both Mary and Super Hero Mary, showing how Mary has grown up to be an adult, whereas the other kids still transform into “adult” superheroes when they shout Shazam. It’s a subtle change, but it highlights the thought that went into each and every member of the family. 

Speaking of performances, each Vasquez family member is empowered by great performances. Jack Dylan Grazer is wonderful in the role of Freddy Freeman, giving the character a loveable performance that doesn’t oversell the nerdy part of Freddy. Ross Butler, Adam Brody, and D.J. Cotrona each capture the behaviors of the kids they play in their superhero adult form. Faithe Herman is once again great as the immediately charming Darla and Meagan Good captures her naïve and outgoing mannerisms seemingly effortlessly as Darla’s superhero form. Marta Millas and Cooper Andrews once again immediately melt hearts as Rosa and Victor Vasquez, the foster parents of the family. The performances of each family member, and the chemistry between them all, enhance the family dynamic that is so often missing from the script this time around. As well, Rachel Zegler is stellar in the role of Anthea, and her chemistry with Jack Dylan Grazer makes for a romance subplot that is cute and believable. The film may struggle with its main plot, but the subplots revolving around Freddy, Anthea, and the Wizard (played by Djimon Hounsou once again) work really well to develop the core themes of the film, while also being very fun to watch. 

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is yet another superhero film to suffer from uneven visual effects. Some effects, like sandstorms, transformations of a location, or the appearance of a dragon, are seamless and fit the film perfectly. There are a plethora of locations created entirely through CGI and thanks to the integration of physical objects in the foreground, you don’t notice the artificial set. The Shazam headquarters is a great example of this, where tables, couches, and random items create a space that feels tangible because it reflects the kids that live there. The blend of CG and production design allows these spaces to feel real. 

Other effects, however, look like plastic and are incorrectly virtually lit. It’s a shame because those uneven effects affect the biggest action sequences the most. But for all the missteps in the visual effects, the direction and editing of these action sequences are great. Sandberg understands the importance of showing civilians in peril and creating the need for a superhero, and it’s something missing from most modern superhero films today. Michel Aller’s editing ensures that the geography of these action sequences is kept clear, and it makes for some exciting battles, especially in the third act. 

Altogether, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is a messy superhero film that doesn’t hold up to its predecessor. It’s a fun popcorn flick plagued by a poor script and a poor lead performance that pulls down the rest of the film around it.

Grade: C

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