About halfway through David F. Sandberg’s “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” our hero’s hometown of Philadelphia gets sealed into a giant, magical bubble. What better metaphor for this series’ place in the DC Universe, a sprawling franchise that never quite cohered and is now getting a major retooling at the hands of new brass, do you need?
When Sandberg’s first “Shazam!” film arrived in theaters in March 2019, it was on the heels of massive box office successes like “Aquaman,” “Justice League,” and “Wonder Woman” — the salad days of what was then known as the DC Extended Universe — and a seemingly clever time to release the closest the DCEU had gotten to a standalone film for the younger set (the first “Suicide Squad,” of course being for a more mature audience). It was cute, funny, sweet, and very much its own thing. It existed in its own bubble, yes, but that wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.
For its second outing, that bubble becomes literal. That’s a good thing, and while the future of this particular series hangs in the balance — a third “Shazam!” film is not currently part of the first wave of films being prepped by the new guard — Shazam and his super-powered family deserve a place in whatever comes next. And while “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” doesn’t entirely recapture the giddy fun of the first film, its humor, sweetness, and delightfully human heroes remaining bright spots in a genre too often obsessed with the dark and the gritty.
Not that it kicks off with such light-heartedness, however. Instead, the film opens with a grim introduction to two of our primary antagonists: sisters Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), two of the daughters of Atlas, a pair of righteously pissed off goddesses who have arrived in our earthly realm to take back what’s theirs, i.e. a giant magical stick last seen being broken in two by Shazam himself (Zachary Levi) at the end of the first film. Both Mirren and Liu don’t quite seem to totally grasp what’s at stake here, but they’re sure as hell having a great time doing it.
Once the pair have taken back said magical stick, they continue to air their rage at the poor tourists who just so happen to be dawdling around the museum it was housed in. Soon, they’ve turned the entire assemblage into statues — doesn’t feel great, huh? — a somewhat understandable dastardly deed that highlights most of the film’s problems. Namely, it’s really scary for a film ostensibly aimed at kids (the film is rated PG-13, which allows the many teens who populate it to swear in normal cadence, but also makes room for some truly unsettling violence), but it’s also a bit confusing, played out of sequence (we later learn that the opening scene actually takes place days and days after the rest of the film kicks off), and it requires a whole mess of exposition.
But, wait, what’s happening with, you know, our titular hero Shazam? When Sandberg is leaning into the lightness of this story — that it’s about a regular old teenage boy, plus his charming foster family, getting turned into a very cool superhero — “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” sparks to life. While the first film chronicled the dizzy joy and total wackiness of a kid (a kid!) getting superpowers, its sequel takes that to its next logical stop: a couple of years into this hero thing, and young Billy Batson (Asher Angel returns to play the teenage hero when he’s not in Shazam get-up) is suffering from imposter syndrome. Score one for relatable problems!
Billy’s attempts to wrestle with his inner demons include everything from a visit to a very baffled pediatrician (perpetual scene-stealer P.J. Byrne, whose doc works out of an office that includes a wonderful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to Sandberg’s horror roots) and subjecting his “fam jam” to videos breaking down what worked (and, more often, what didn’t work) during their missions. Billy’s entire ethos hinges on his family motto — “all or none!” — that requires all of his foster siblings (and fellow superheroes) to participate in said missions, which have gone so haywire that the troupe has earned the moniker “The Philly Fiascos.”
Listen, it’s hard to be a superhero when you’re just 17 years old! But while Billy is struggling with leading this rag-tag group, the rest of his family is ailing, too. Young Darla (played by Faithe Herman as a kiddo, and the extraordinarily charming Meagan Good in her superhero form) just wants a kitten, Pedro (Jovan Armand and D.J. Cotrona) is dealing with a different kind of self-actualization, Eugene (Ian Chen and Ross Butler) spends most of his time trying to map where the various doors in their lair lead to, and Mary (Grace Caroline Currey, playing both sides of the character) is a little pissed off that she’s being kept from her college dreams.
As for Billy’s best friend, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, somehow even more delightful than he was in the first film, plus Adam Brody as his superhero counterpart, also a total joy)? He’s never happier than when he’s off fighting crime, even when that means he’s doing it alone.
But these are all distinctly Earth-bound dilemmas, and when Hespera and Kalypso bring their rage (and their magical stick!) to Philadelphia, in order to — uh, checks notes, avenge their father? save their own realm, which was sealed off from magic by Billy’s own wizard pal (Djimon Hounsou, who apparently didn’t die in the first film)? get some magic apple? kill the kids? good gods almighty, what is happening here? — things suddenly get very real. And, as continues to be the case with any and all major superhero films, they get really big, with the fate of nothing less than the entire universe in the balance.
All that superhero stuff, all those played-out problems (the universe?? again??), all those tropes recede when Sandberg’s film (written by Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan) taps back into the special bubble that is Shazam. Superhero movies don’t have to be dark or dismal or just for adults, they can be colorful and silly and funny for the whole family! These are not at all original ideas, but when “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” is doing them well, the film is a sterling reminder of how truly wide the genre can be, and how increasingly narrow it feels.
Eventually, Shazam and those naughty sisters (plus a third, who we won’t spoil here) have to reckon with each other, after the goddesses steal Freddy, seal off Philly, and snatch the powers of the rest of the family. Things get still more convoluted when that aforementioned apple (really, the seed of life) is planted in the inhospitable soil of (ew, gross!) Earth by a maniacal Kalypso. It doesn’t sprout delightful wonders, but a “blighted” tree that then hatches a series of classic mythological monsters, all manner of minotaurs and cyclopes suddenly jamming around an already-addled Philly.
Despite the universal stakes of what’s unfolding, the action feels relatively contained (the monsters look good, the lightning Shazam so often employs has never looked better, but it all feels as if was shot on a single backlot). And while the rest of the DC world does occasionally find its way into this particular bubble (Billy, for instance, has a major crush on Wonder Woman), there’s something to be said for a series like this that can truly stand alone. It’s charming — and it’s different, and it’s worth saving.
Warner Bros. will release “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” in theaters on Friday, March 17.