2023 is going to be an odd year for DC comic book movies. For one thing it will mark the end of one era in the progression of movies they have put out, as well as the beginning of another era. But, before the new can begin, the old must have it’s final say, and that’s what is happening with the DC films this year. In a remarkable turn of events in the last year, the mega merger of Warner Media (DC’s parent company) and Discovery Entertainment caused a ripple effect across all projects in various levels of development. One thing was clear as newly appointed CEO David Zaslev took over control of the company; changes had to be made. For DC, this meant put a stop to the current flow of movies in the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU) pipeline and re-assessing the direction that they wanted to go with the properties that they had. This is some ways was welcome, as the DCEU has been for the most part an un-focused mess. Often dubbed the Snyderverse, because of the creative direction the franchise has followed built off of the movies directed by Zach Snyder, the DCEU for the longest time had been playing catch-up with their rivals at Marvel Studios, struggling to build a compelling interconnected universe on the same level. While Zach Snyder’s vision can definitely be considered unique and in contrast with Marvel, the movies he made were often too dour and pretentious to be considered entertaining, and sadly it caused most of the other DC movies to feel lacking in entertainment as well. There were bright spots like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), but the DCEU overall never could get it’s footing right, and many felt that it wasted iconic storylines in a hopeless pursuit of besting Marvel. So, a refresh was definitely called for, and that’s what Zaslev has ordered from DC. Sadly, this action came with it’s own drastic measures, including the cancellation of a nearly complete, $90 million Batgirl movie. But, the issue at DC was a lack of cohesion in it’s overall vision, and to try to change course on the shaky foundation of the past would’ve been too much of a hassle for the new regime, so a fresh start is what they chose instead. And the new DC would also be giving the duty of uniting it’s universe through one creative mind: filmmaker James Gunn.
Gunn has taken over the role of Creative Director for the DC Comics film division with the unenviable task of restructuring the direction of the now dubbed DCU. Having won acclaim from his time at Marvel, turning the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy comic book line into a billion dollar franchise all on it’s own, James Gunn is entering his new position at DC with a lot of high hopes resting on his shoulders. A few weeks back, we saw our first glimpse at what his team has come up with for a fresh new direction for the universe, including a mix of familiar faces (Superman and Batman) alongside obscure characters from deep within the DC library; something that Gunn holds especially dear. Some welcomed the news, while others were cautious in their optimism, knowing how they’ve been disappointed in DC before. And then there are the Snyderverse stans who refuse to let the past die and are already grinding their axes to take down James Gunn. Suffice to say, it is going to be interesting to see how Gunn and company manage to roll out their slate of projects after the turbulent ride that DC has been through. One thing that is going to be interesting to see though is how the remnants of the old DCEU play out, knowing that their storyline is largely coming to an unceremonious end. There are four DC movies releasing this year: the long awaited and controversial Flash movie, the little known Blue Beetle movie, the sequel to the Jason Momoa headlined Aquaman, and of course, the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods, coming out this weekend. With the knowledge of the DCEU coming to an end, and the DCU rising from it’s ashes, is Shazam: Fury of the Gods a movie at all worth seeing, and is it a bright light on a dark road or an even clearer sign of what needed to change at DC?
Shazam: Fury of the Gods pretty much picks up where the last film left off. Young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been gifted super human power when ever he says the magic words “SHAZAM,” which turns him into an adult super being of the same name (Zachary Levi). His foster family of fellow orphans that he shares a home with, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Glazer), Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand) Mary Bromfield (Grace Caroline Currey), and Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman) have also gained the same ability to transform into super beings (Adam Brody, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Currey again, and Meagan Good respectively) and together they have formed a super hero team to protect their hometown of Philadelphia. The only problem is that despite outward appearances, they are still kids and they make a lot of mistakes that other more experienced super heroes do not. This has earned them the unflattering nickname of the ‘Philly Fiascos” by the fed up citizens of the city. At the same time, Billy is beginning to feel unsure of his ability to lead the others and keep them together as a family unit, knowing full well that he’s going to turn 18 soon and age out of the foster care system. Meanwhile, the wizard staff that gave them all their powers has been stolen by super powered being known as the Daughters of Atlas. Two of the sisters, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) have also imprisoned the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) himself and forced him to repair the damage to the staff to bring it’s power back. Their intent is to reclaim the power of the Gods that the Wizard has stolen from them, which now is possessed by Shazam and his family, and bring back the power to their realm. There is also a girl who has befriended Freddy named Anna (Rachel Zegler) who may hold a few answers of her own about what is at stake. Dealing with a threat of malevolent Gods in their city, the family of Supers must figure out a way to overcome their inexperience and rise to the challenge, and Billy must confront the thing that he has long been avoiding, which is the realization that he has to start growing up.
When the first Shazam movie came out in Spring of 2019, it was a breath of fresh air after the depressing Zack Snyder movies and the underwhelming DCEU movies that surrounded it. It was light and airy, and also not afraid to poke fun at itself and other DC comic book characters. Most of all, it had a sense of fun and was charmingly irreverent; a stark contrast to what the rest of the DCEU had to offer. And it did all this, without feeling like a Marvel clone. For the first time, it looked like Shazam had managed to crack the formula, and give us a DCEU movie that could indeed entertain while still staying true to it’s comic book origins. Sadly, it’s reign at the box office was cut short as Marvel had it’s record breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019) hit theaters a few short weeks later, but it made enough to convince Warner Brothers to greenlight a sequel. The only question was, could they capture the same kind of magic a second time around? Fury of the Gods is coming out in a far different kind of environment. The movie had to be made during the pandemic and of course the whole shake-up at the top of the company suddenly made the future of this series irrelevant. So, it is at least a consolation that if this is the end of this series of Shazam movies, at least they are going out on a positive note. It doesn’t quite surpass the original, but Fury of the Gods is a worthy companion to the first film. It thankfully maintains the sense of fun and irreverence that made the first so likable. I think that it’s a result of the same team returning for this production, picking up right where they left off. Director David F. Sandberg just has a good sense of tone; knowing when to incorporate the humor at the right moments, while also making clear what the stakes are in this story. He also does a great job of directing the action beats in each scene. All the action is clear and visible (which really made the first film also stand out against the Snyderverse films) and there is a lot of creativity in how the scenes are staged.
If there is something that I feel like the movie falls short off it’s predecessor with in comparison, it would be some of the character development. In particular, there is something lacking with the character of Shazam/ Billy Batson. The first film created this compelling story about Billy’s desperate search for his birth mother, only to lead him towards accepting the family he chooses rather than the family that abandoned him. It was a heartwarming aspect of his character development that helped to balance out more humorous aspects of his personality when he was in super-powered mode. This time around, the movie leans more on the sillier side when it comes to Shazam, and that kind of robs the movie of the heart that defined the original. Here Billy’s story is far less of a factor, with some of his adopted brothers and sisters taking more of the spotlight. As a result, they stand out more and he’s more or less just present as a comical diversion. Also, it seems like in the interval between films, Shazam has gotten somewhat dumber. I understand that part of that is the fact that he still technically a kid and that Billy is fearful of growing up; but there is a level of immaturity with the character in this movie that seems like even more of a step backwards from the last film. To me, it just seems like the filmmakers wanted to utilize Zachary Levi’s man-child schtick a bit more in this movie, and he carries most of the screen-time in this film. Asher Angel, who had about equal screen-time in the last film is barely here this time, and there seems to be even more of a disconnect between how the two actors are playing the character. Levi’s playing him more broad, while Angel’s more toned down, and it makes the conceit of the transformation feel far less effective.
The rest of the cast though feels more in tune with different roles they are playing. I definitely buy the fact that Jack Dylan Grazer and Adam Brody are playing the same character, as they both are bringing the same fast-talking nerdy vibe to the character. The even better match is Meagan Good and Faithe Herman as the different versions of Darla, as they both perfectly capture the sweet innocent femininity of the youngest member of the super family. As far as the villains go in this movie, both Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu bring the right amount of menacing presence to the movie without undermining the overall lighter tone. Helen Mirren in particular really understands the assignment, as she uses her high thespian skills to bring sincerity to her portrayal of an all powerful goddess, while at the same time knowing how to have fun with it. There is one scene where her character read a letter that has to be hands down one of the funniest moment I’ve seen in a movie in a long while. Her delivery in particular makes the moment work perfectly, and I was cracking up in the theater. And while I have my reservations about how his character development progressed in this movie, I will say that both Zachary Levi and Asher Angel still do a good job of playing the character of Billy Batson/Shazam. Levi in particular really manages to put hilarious spins on his line readings that makes the character genuinely funny to watch. But overall, it’s Jack Dylan Grazer that stands out the most in this movie. He was clearly the scene stealer of the first Shazam and it makes sense to expand his role further here. The movie definitely leans into his sense of comedic timing, but I was also impressed with how well he handled the more dramatic moments too. There are parts of the climatic ending of this movie where he really puts in an emotional performance, and it’s really good to see how well he has progressed as an actor between movies.
The movie also follows in the footsteps of it’s predecessor by being visually pleasing as well. I appreciate the fact that the movie takes place mostly in broad daylight, which helps to keep everything coherent visually. Many super hero films, particularly the DCEU ones, cast their color palette in darker tones, probably as a means of softening the look of less than stellar visual effects shots. Shazam on the other hand keeps things bright, even if it doesn’t help the CGI effects. The CGI is about on par with most movies in the genre, but with Shazam, the filmmakers thankfully don’t worry too much if a few things don’t look 100% realistic. As long as the special effects remain inventive and engaging, it doesn’t have to be photo-realistic. This is definitely evident with the monsters in this movie, which very much look like digital creations. The designs are unique enough and their actions inventive enough that it becomes acceptable having them appear a little off. There are good visual effects here too. One character in the movie has the ability to manipulate environments like they were on a turntable, and it’s a really neat looking visual. There’s also a very cool looking dragon made out of wood that is beautifully designed and even looks good mixed in with the live action environments. Sandberg’s direction also keeps the movie briskly paced even with so many characters and plot elements to juggle. Considering how so many super hero films as of late feel disjointed and meandering, it’s refreshing to see a movie like this keep things simple and clear. Essentially, the movie centers around a central McGuffin and it’s all about the heroes trying to keep the villains from gaining what they want; simple textbook story structure, but executed to near perfection. Especially in comparison to the movie that this is most associated with in the DCEU, last year’s Black Adam (2022), this movie thankfully keeps it clear what it’s heroes’ motivations are, and that’s proving oneself worthy of great power; something this movie carries over from the first film.
The movie’s timing is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. It’s coming at a time when DC is about to re-organize and start their connected universe from scratch, making this movie irrelevant. On top of that, there seems to be a sense of Comic Book movie fatigue starting to set it with audiences. This is evident by the recent disappointment of Marvel’s own Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023). My worry is that this kind of environment is going to cast an unfair pallor over this film, which may sadly cause many people to overlook this very entertaining sequel. It’s definitely got it’s own flaws, but those shortcomings are overwhelmed by the sincerity and sense of fun that Shazam: Fury of the Gods has. I really hope that audiences don’t overlook this movie and give it at least a chance. Whether it’s the lively performances of the cast of actors or the inventive and engaging action sequences, this is a sequel that at the very least matches it’s predecessor in many ways. The big disadvantage that it has is that it’s not the introduction to the character and his story, taking some of the initial novelty away. But, enough surprises keeps this movie from disappointing and the overall experience is one that I think that audiences will react to favorably. It remains to be seen what Shazam’s fate will be in the newly laid out plans for DC’s future. The end credit scenes don’t give us a definitive answer either (it honestly could go either way). Hopefully James Gunn still will consider a place for Shazam in the future of the DCU, though it may have to be with different actors. Asher Angel is growing up fast, and the novelty of a young boy turning into a full grown super hero won’t work as well as he himself ages more into manhood himself. For a movie on it’s own, Shazam: Fury of the Gods delivers enough of the good things that made the original such a standout delight while adding it’s own special treats to the mix and if this is the end of the line for this story, it at least makes the most of it. Definitely have a super time with this super hero sequel.