Family Feuds — Shazam! Fury of the Gods
I really liked the first Shazam! movie from a few years ago. It was delightfully low stakes, Zachary Levi was tremendous as the titular original Captain Marvel, and honestly it was nice to see one of these superhero movies set in Philadelphia and largely not succumbing to cheap jokes and insults about the City of Brotherly Love, which has always felt like my second home (growing up in Delaware, the entire northern half of the state is essentially a suburb of Philly, with the lower half serving the same vicarious role for Baltimore). It was by no means a perfect film, but it was a welcome bit of levity and a respite from the far too weighty (and largely garbage) entries in the DC Extended Universe from Zack Snyder and his imitators.
Since the last film, the DCEU has been on a fairly sustained downturn, with Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Adam both being among the worst movies of their respective release years, and The Suicide Squad serving as the only highlight. Despite a very lackluster trailer, I had hopes that this long-awaited sequel would serve as a palate cleanser and get things back on track. Sadly, it appears the decision-makers at Warner Bros. have learned absolutely nothing from the diminishing returns and franchise fatigue (both here and with Marvel), and have instead turned in a tonally confused, meandering affair that occasionally elicits some laughs, but not much else. It’s fairly telling when I can go see a Saturday matinee and be able to count every person in the theatre (12 in all), with the only ones enjoying themselves being the two children under 10 who don’t know any better.
The entire picture just seems to be one wrong decision after another, including betraying the very things that made the first film so much fun. Levi is still enjoyable, but his energy and humor is weighed down by a massive overcorrection from the last entry. While it didn’t bother me all that much, one of the flaws of the first movie is that Shazam the superhero acted more like a teenager than Billy Batson (Asher Angel) the actual person. So instead of striking a balance between the two characters sharing both angst and humor, Billy is all but removed from the proceedings, appearing in only a handful of scenes, most of which are just one-note acknowledgements of basic adolescent issues, like still addressing his adoptive mother Rosa (Marta Milans) by her first name rather than “Mom,” and having a cringeworthy sex dream about Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot’s late cameo is somehow even worse than the fantasy fakeout). Everything else is Shazam and Levi doing his normal shtick, with the occasional token mention of abandonment issues and insecurity that are not explored nearly in depth enough to have any resonance. As such, both characters get short-changed, and the core issue remains. The closest we get is a running gag about Shazam definitely NOT possessing the “Wisdom of Solomon,” but it’s never paid off in any meaningful way.
The lack of a tonal direction also doesn’t help matters. The stakes are presented as being much higher this time around, as the “Daughters of Atlas” (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler; the latter of whom is set up as some sort of twist, but you can see it coming a mile away) have entered the Human Realm from some nebulous dimension of gods that was sealed away by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, reappearing with a hand-wave explanation that he totally didn’t die in the last movie, but faded out of our world and back into the other one). That seal was removed when Billy broke his staff at the end of the previous film.
These ladies are super serious and dire, and it’s a credit to Helen Mirren’s skills as an actress that she can phone in her lines and still give them a degree of gravitas. They want to not only steal back the powers of Shazam that they feel were wrongly bestowed to children, but restore their world to its former glory and resume their ancient dominion over mankind. They even have the ability to plant a new “Tree of Life” and summon lackluster CGI monsters like minotaurs, manticores, cyclopes, and even a wooden dragon. That’s quite the elevation from a jilted evil scientist with an axe to grind against the wizard, but the movie wants to have it both ways, treating the women as legitimate threats (with Zegler being a love interest for Jack Dylan Glazer’s Freddy), but still trying to inject lame jokes and pop culture references (invoking the Fast and Furious series knocks off a whole letter grade by itself) as if they’re not. This is the same problem we had with Quantumania. Most of these comic book movies don’t have writers, directors, or producers strong enough to be both funny and gritty, so they settle for sucking at both rather than committing to one or the other.
But the biggest sin of all is that the film just doesn’t feel like doing anything with the embarrassment of riches it has at its fingertips. A strong cast is largely wasted in thankless asides that don’t go anywhere. For example, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey, playing both normal and Shazam-ed forms, the only member of the adoptive family to do this for some reason) chose not to go to college after the last movie, but she’s still somehow studying organic chemistry and chastising Billy for being too clingy. Neither thread is resolved. Pedro (Jovan Armand/D.J. Cotrona) gets a perfunctory scene where he comes out as gay, giving him a second dimension after being fat. It goes nowhere. The Shazam siblings are dubbed the “Philly Fiascos” by local press for reasons that are never explained, even when they’re saving lives. I’m pretty sure it’s a thinly-veiled knock on the worst perception of people from Philadelphia, but again, it’s never treated as anything more than a tossed off gag with no inherent logic. Kalypso (Liu) has the power of “chaos,” which she basically only uses in the sisters’ introductory scene to steal the pieces of the wizard’s staff and to give one scene involving Diedrich Bader (I suspect his casting is a meta wink, as he’s the voice of Batman in Harley Quinn and other animated DC shows) a very dark turn that was in no way warranted and that rips off the most recent Matrix movie for reasons I can’t fathom. In all cases, her “chaos” is used in service of her diabolical schemes, meaning everything she does is planned, completely antithetical to the idea of chaos and the randomness it’s supposed to entail. It’s violence, not chaos. Those are two completely different concepts.
The one attempt the film makes to have any emotional relevance is when it comes to family dynamics, but again, it’s just left hanging. On the one side you have the Daughters of Atlas, all of whom have their own motivations, and who can’t figure out how to solve their disagreements and conflicts. On the other you have Billy and his team, all of whom have stuff they’d rather be doing than fighting crime as a unit, with Billy desperately trying to keep them all together. The seeds are there for a genuine look at how families can evolve (or not) as people grow and roles change. There was a tremendous opportunity to contrast Billy’s well-meaning micromanagement with Hespera (Mirren) and her attempts to keep Kalypso and Anthea (Zegler) in line and focused on their goal. The moment was there for the taking, and instead we get a bit where some rando criticizes Shazam for eating a cheesesteak.
The film isn’t a total loss. A good deal of the jokes are effective thanks to Levi’s delivery, particularly the capper to the otherwise lame doctor’s visit gag that leads the trailer. Darla (Faithe Herman/Meagan Good) is still delightfully adorable for the five minutes of screen time she has. The visual of the six kids turning the Rock of Eternity into a clubhouse is a very strong idea, and you get a few chuckles out of how they decorate the statues of the Seven Deadly Sins. A daring rescue on the Franklin Bridge is set to “Holding Out for a Hero,” which is extremely lame until Shazam himself comments on it with that infectious meta joy that you can’t help but smile at. For some reason there’s a sentient pen that Eugene (Ian Chen/Ross Butler) has named “Steve” (because why not) that makes for one of the funniest methods of exposition dumbing I’ve seen in a while, a reminder of how wonderfully silly this all could have been.
When the movie decides that it wants to be fun, it still is. But unfortunately, that’s only a small piece of a larger, unfocused whole. After the massive disappointment that was Black Adam, you’d think that the powers that be over at WB and DC would rethink their strategy. Instead, they seem to be doubling down, including treating this Shazam as if he’s aspiring to be Teth Adam, including cribbing the “catchphrase” runner from that movie (itself a ripoff of Terminator 2) into a pointless through line about the family trying to come up with their own superhero names, as well as the climactic fight scene involving Billy’s suit getting burned into the exact ashy shade of black as Dwayne Johnson’s. It’s not that a Shazam! movie can’t be taken seriously, but just like so many other misfires in recent years, the filmmakers are afraid to commit to the idea. Rather, they think they can ride the fence, presenting a dark, high stakes story while still relying on the more goofy humor to make it so the audience doesn’t walk out. As such, in a follow-up that could have gone in any number of directions, we instead circle the drain while Darla feeds a unicorn Skittles.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are we finally reaching the end of the comic book movie craze? What’s your favorite superpower, other than “the whim of the screenwriter”? Let me know!