'Shazam! Fury of the Gods': A Fun, Slightly Unfocused Sequel
The DC Extended Universe of films has certainly had some highs and lows over the past several years. While Marvel has dominated the culture in regards to comic book related media, DC tried its best to keep up. Most of their output in the past 10 years has done well at the box office, but the critical reception has been less than desirable. This mostly stems from the Zack Snyder run of DC films (save for his 4-hour cut of Justice League), as well as David Ayer's Suicide Squad. Most moviegoers were turned off by the grittier nature of these films, and their attempt at a shared universe was not as well-received compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They hit a low point with 2017's Justice League, but began to bounce back with 2018's Aquaman. In 2019, they released Shazam!, which managed to be both a critical and commercial success. The film acted as a respite from the grim self-seriousness of other DC films, as well as the increasing homogeny of the MCU. Shazam! was a breath of fresh air, and due to its success, a sequel was inevitable. But with all the changes both culturally and within DC Studios itself, this new installment, subtitled Fury of the Gods, feels like it is coming a bit too late, and zaps some of the magic of its predecessor away.
Picking up two years after the events of the first film, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) a.k.a. Shazam (Zachary Levi) has settled into his life with his foster siblings, who are now a team of superheroes. When a new threat emerges in the form of the Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), two daughters of the Greek Titan Atlas, it is up to Shazam and his siblings to fight them in order to save the world.
One of the things I loved about the first Shazam! movie was how grounded it was in comparison to other comic book films of the time. So much of the story's humor and stakes stem from Billy being a teenager in an adult's body, while mastering his newfound superpowers. This allowed the film to feel lighter and funnier than other superhero movies, and develop its own identity. With Fury of the Gods, that identity is still there at times, but it gets minimized due to the more fantastical plot elements involving the daughters of Atlas. It's not that these elements are bad, per se, but they do take away from the film's overall energy and made me miss the smaller scale of the first movie. I certainly understand why this film would feel the need to go bigger, but it feels like a huge jump compared to the previous film, which doesn't always work. These elements mostly just make the film feel a bit more serious than it probably should, and sucks some of the fun out of it. This leads to a divide in the film retaining the spirit of the first movie, and feeling just like any other DC movie. When the film is focused on being one or the other, it mostly works (especially when it leans toward the former), but it's when it gets caught up in the middle of the two that it gets dicey. The worst of it is its ending, which is perhaps my biggest issue with the film. I can't get into specifics without spoilers, but I will say that the ending is so tonally uneven, and makes one specific choice that feels unnecessary and completely took me out of the film.
What redeems some of the film's narrative issues is its direction. David F. Sandberg's direction was one of the biggest strengths of the first film, and this is certainly true of the sequel. His work might not come across the same way as it did in the original, but it at least holds the film together fairly well. Sandberg struggles a little in some of the larger setpieces, but this could be more of an issue with the film's editing. It's a bit choppy and spatially confused at times, which took away from what could have been some pretty decent action sequences. To the film's credit, the opening sequence is quite solid, but the other big action scenes don't quite hit as hard. However, Sandberg is still able to salvage these moments, although he is at his best with the film's more grounded moments.
With this being a big superhero movie, its visual effects are going to be a major component of it. I wasn't necessarily expecting anything incredible with this film, but the VFX are a definitely a mixed bag. There are moments that feel rather fake, with obvious green-screening and some dodgy CGI. That said, the production design isn't half bad, with the scenes in the Rock of Eternity and the realm of the Gods in particular standing out. There are also some creatures that appear later in the film, and the design on them is rather intriguing, and gives them a rather malevolent feel that works rather nicely for the film. I can't be too mad at some of the shortcomings in the overall look of the film, as it is clear that a decent effort was made, and even if not everything works, it doesn't tank the film too badly.
I must say that I was quite intrigued when it was announced that Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu were going to be in this film. Both are fascinating casting choices, as Mirren seems to be overqualified and Liu hasn't been in the spotlight all that much over the past few years. Unsurprisingly, both of them do a great job here. Especially Liu, who gives a rather compelling villain performance and comes across as genuinely intimidating. I also enjoyed Rachel Zegler's performance, even though her character feels a bit underdeveloped. But Zegler is so talented that she makes the best of what she's been given and has a great screen presence. Djimon Hounsou is great as always here, and I'm glad that this film gave him a little more to do. As for Zachary Levi, he's perfectly fine, but he feels slightly subdued here. The fun, slightly silly nature of his character in the first film is largely gone this time around, as he is leaning more into a typical superhero persona. He does a decent job, but his performance lacks some of the magic from his first go-round as Shazam.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods might be a step down from the first movie, but there is still some fun to be had. It is a little unfocused, and makes a few baffling narrative decisions, but it is still somewhat decent at the very least. Fans of the DCEU will probably enjoy this one, but those who aren't as devoted to the franchise might be left a little cold. With DC Studios undergoing a major overhaul, it is unclear whether we will get another Shazam! movie. If we do, I have a feeling that it will be more of a reboot, just based off what I know about James Gunn's plans for the company. It's a bit sad, because even with my issues with this film, I wouldn't mind seeing a third one, and the possibilities of this seem slim. But either way, I appreciate Fury of the Gods for what it is, even if it leaves a little to be desired.