Shazam!, released in 2019, was the story of Billy (Asher Angel), a teenage boy granted the ability to transform into an adult, off-brand Superman (Zachary Levi) with the simple cry of the film’s title. Today it is rarely upheld as a highlight in DC’s catalogue, but at a time in which the studio’s output so often felt exhaustingly cataclysmic, it was refreshing to see a superhero movie that forefronted sweetness and sincerity.
What a difference four years make. Shazam!’s sequel, Fury of the Gods, has now been sent out, defenceless, into DC’s cinematic no man’s land. The film marks one of the last breaths of an old regime at the studio, which is now under the control of Peter Safran and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. Their universe will presumably dispense with the dishevelled approach to tone and continuity that characterised the tenure of their predecessor Walter Hamada. His DCU could never decide whether it wanted to emulate Marvel or do the total opposite, so you’d get films embodying the very best (The Suicide Squad) and the very worst (Suicide Squad) of recent comic book fare. Fury of the Gods lands in the frustrating middle: a film that isn’t without promise, but feels far too messy and corporatised to have any real affection for.
Here we’re thrust into the complicated realm of ancient Greek mythology, namely the Daughters of Atlas: Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler). Shazam’s powers were granted to him by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) through the use of a magical staff, which has its own links to the society of ancient gods. The sisters need that staff in order to enact a revenge plan on the mortal realm. There’s bad blood all around.
There’s a lot of groundwork to be laid for any of this to make sense, so Fury of the Gods routinely stalls so that characters can gather in dimly lit sets and rattle through as much exposition as they can. The action sequences are treated much the same – for a film that extolls the limitless potential of the mythic, half of these scenes still take place in abandoned warehouses. Mirren, Liu, and Zegler seem to have (accurately) understood that all that’s needed from them is to look cool in their costumes and then cash their cheques. It may not be practical to build an entire film around how sexy it is when Mirren casually adjusts her crown, but it’s also the only truly valuable thing Fury of the Gods has to offer.
Director David F Sandberg, and his writers Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan, haven’t been given the room – or simply don’t care enough – to actually establish how a Shazam! film should look and move. The wisecracks in the script are either about other Warner Bros properties (Game of Thrones, Annabelle and The Lord of the Rings all get a look-in) or their rivals over at Disney. A contractually obligated cameo plays out with the same insane bombast as a wrestling entrance. One key scene is just a promotional tie-in with Skittles.
Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Billy’s BFF Freddie, is asked to singlehandedly carry the entirety of the film’s emotional weight here – Angel having been largely jettisoned – and he does it extremely well. They should give him a pay rise if they ever make another one of these movies. But by the time a set of post-credit scenes roll by, each teasing films that may now never happen, it’s hard not to ask yourself one key question: does anything about Shazam! Fury of the Gods actually matter?
Dir: David F Sandberg. Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Rachel Zegler, Lucy Liu, Djimon Hounsou, Helen Mirren. 12A, 130 minutes.
‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ is in cinemas from Friday 17 March