Previously on Shazam!: TV’s Chuck, a.k.a. Zachary Levi, was DC Comics’ choice to play The World’s Mightiest Mortal, as Fawcett Comics once billed him before DC Comics swallowed them and the Big Red Cheese whole back in the ’50s. My thoughts in sum:
It’s the role Zachary Levi was born to play! The best DC Comics film of 2019 does a better job than current comics of recreating that classic CC Beck/Otto Binder magic, the heroic misadventure and the endearing innocence. Sivana’s partners-in-evil are disproportionately horrific as if there were a minimum mandatory Zack Snyder threshold to be met, and Billy Batson’s newly-adult, frequently actionable shenanigans are spared a lot of deserved consequences, but the film’s found-family core and ultimately encouraging vibe have such a puppy-dog charm that it’s hard to stay mad at it.
Levi’s magically adult Billy Batson, his teenage counterpart Asher Angel, his seven foster-family members, and five identically super-powered counterparts are back in Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which is all of the above twofold: the rules-free magic, the wacky misadventure, the thick-skulled innocence, the disproportionate horror, the frequently actionable shenanigans, and the complete lack of consequences on every level. This time the meek attempts at encouragement and puppy-dog eyes tested my patience too far.
When last we left The Hero Formerly Known As Captain Marvel, he was beholden to current comics continuity and at the end had to cheerfully share his powers with his foster siblings Mary (Grace Caroline Currey, f/k/a Grace Fulton), Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer from Stephen King’s It), Eugene (Ian Chen from Fresh Off the Boat), Pedro (Jovan Armand from The Middle), and li’l Darla (Faithe Herman from This Is Us). So now they all turn into their own adult Marvels played by Adam Brody (The O.C.), Ross Butler (13 Reasons Why), D.J. Cotrona (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), and Meagan Good (Brick). One exception: the twentysomething Currey now plays pre-collegiate Mary and lightning-fueled Mary Marvel. Well, except nobody can call themselves “Marvel” due to obvious reasons, but I’m not calling her “Mary Shazam”.
At Billy’s bidding the sextet have agreed on two things: their powers should stay secret from Foster Mom and Foster Dad (Marta Milans and Walking Dead‘s Cooper Andrews); and they only use their powers as a team even though they’re all copycats. No one gets to do solo heroism because (a) they’re all still kids inside (well, except Mary, but she abides) and (b) Billy wants them never, ever, ever to separate as a family because he has major abandonment issues, what with his real parents having done exactly that to him. Also, to an unspoken extent he’s contractually owed the largest spotlight. Naturally this lasts about six seconds because kids who can punch hard, fly, take bullets and shoot lightning bolts are prone to the occasional flex, especially Freddy, who’s now taken to secret nighttime solo-heroing under the name Captain Everypower, a gentle reminder that sometimes this film and director David F. Sandberg can still be funny.
What passes for antagonism in Fury of the Gods is wafer-thin pretext: a few of the numerous Hesperides — children of Atlas who used to be nymphs in Greek mythology but have been reimagined here as a trio of non-Greek warrior women who are basically Amazons via Morgan le Fay — are mad that their god-dimension was stripped of its magical godliness and want it back. Also, the wizard Shazam allegedly killed their dad and gifted his stamina to Our Heroes, though they don’t point out these trivia facts nearly as often as you’d expect. Their self-absorbed reparation plan:
- Let the youngest of the three, Anthea (Rachel Zegler, Maria from Spielberg’s West Side Story), enroll in a Philadelphia high school as an ordinary student and coincdentally share classes with Freddy, totally unbeknownst to Anthea.
- While she’s living a normal life, her elders Hespera (Dame Helen Mirren from the Fast and the Furious series) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu from Elementary) go to a Greek museum and steal the wizard Shazam’s staff that Billy snapped in half at the end of the first movie.
- Steal back the Shazam powers from Our Heroes.
- Stop doing that once Billy is the last Shazam standing for some reason.
- Weasel their way into the Rock of Eternity for a MacGuffin.
- Keep scrambling for that same MacGuffin for like an hour, millennia-old quasi-Amazon sorceresses versus untrained musclebound teens less than 1% their age, like this was an ’80s musical about orphan misfits outwitting an evil billionaire.
- Turn our world into an overblown blockbuster spectacle.
- See which Hesperide betrays the others first.
And so it goes for our super-villain team, who might’ve been worthy adversaries if Leslie Nielsen had ever starred in a superhero spoof. Instead, Sandberg and his writers Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Chris Morgan (seven, count them, SEVEN Fast and the Furious movies) bank on the audience being awed by Mirren and Liu on principle, and therefore don’t really imbue them with any innate reasons for us to be awed. They’re just armored witches who cast whatever spells the plot needs, recruit monster minions, and chase after very tall children wearing bootleg Flash jumpsuits and capes. Only Anthea gets an individual ability, but it’s a nonsensical spell that rearranges all space, buildings and other large objects around her into super-labyrinths, then snaps everything back to where it was without any visible damage or response from anyone who might’ve been standing inside her danger zone. At least when Dr. Strange warped entire cities, all the reality distortions were happening in a mirror dimension where nothing was perceivable on a mortal level.
Such explanations require too much thought by this film’s low standard, which settles for ordinary citywide smash-’em-up mayhem, weirdly leavened with lots of shots of innocent bystanders staring helplessly at dangers, most of whom then get killed or maimed while Our Heroes are off speechifying to each other about Family and Never Giving Up, Never Surrendering and so forth for several long, morally educational minutes at a time despite the hundreds or thousands of casualties mounting. When they make with the punchy-punchy, the results are the same old careless, casually cataclysmic destruction that Man of Steel did and Dawn of Justice condemned. Never mind the laughably unexamined logistics of, say, throwing up a magic dome that cuts all of Philly off from the outside world (The Batman did that more practically, with more severe side effects), shoving a dragon through a skyscraper because that’s what Real Heroes do on the assumption that there were no civilians inside, or for that matter fitting said dragon through a human doorway to reach our dimension in the first place. You can practically hear Sandberg in the background yelling “SORCERY!” while everything turns into EXPLOSIONS.
Meanwhile, Shazam and the Shazam Kidz try to have their DC Comics Serious Heroism and their lighthearted family sitcom too. Had the entire film aimed for the latter, maybe even went back and reread some of those classic Captain Marvel comics that deftly balanced whimsy and wonders, Fury of the Gods might’ve felt like more than a tempest in a teapot. The humorous bits have an okay success rate; Angel, as teen Billy, still feels like an earnest cypher, but Grazer once again runs away with every scene he’s in, whether funny or serious. The rest come and go, displaying light ensemble possibilities but overshadowed by all the flying debris, whiz-bang CG monsters, a special product-placement plot contrivance starring Skittles™, and…frankly, by the time a Very Special Guest showed up at the very end as a literal deus ex machina (complete with Very Special Musical Sting), I had had it.
Someone call me if new DC overlords James Gunn and Peter Safran greenlight a Captain Everypower spinoff.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Besides the thirteen returning cast members listed above, if you’ve seen the trailers it’s not a spoiler to mention Djimon Hounsou is once again the wizard Shazam, not dead yet. He earns far more screen time, mostly as a welcome comic relief from our differently comic leads. Somehow he and Grazer make an improbably solid team and I look forward to seeing both their names above the title in HBO Max’s Captain Everypower and the Wiz.
Hapless victims of the grimdark carnage include Rizwan Manji (Peacemaker, Outsourced) as a museum docent and Diedrich Bader (Batman: The Brave and the Bold, The Drew Carey Show) as a friendly schoolteacher. You’d have to be pretty young and/or inattentive not to spot Michael Gray, TV’s original 1970s Billy Batson, cameoing in his original togs. Other noticed notables include P.J. Byrne (a true highlight of Babylon) as a perplexed pediatrician and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who now plays himself more often in films than he does on TV.
But wait! There’s more!
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed scenes during and after the Shazam! Fury of the Gods end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship…]
…after the initial wave of end credits written and illustrated by Steve the Magic Pen, Billy Shazam is out in the woods zappin’ bottles with finger-lightning, because he’s still not grown up. He’s interrupted by a pair of surprise visitors: Steve Agee and Jennifer Holland from The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, reprising their roles as Amanda Waller’s chair-lackeys in Task Force X. Though Viola Davis is nowhere to be seen, Holland last appeared in Black Adam, where we learned their shadowy department now also runs the Justice Society…and they’d like Shazam Prime on their team. He’s excited till he realizes he’s confusing them with the Justice League, which is the team with Wonder Woman in it. While Levi prattles on in Levi’s trademark frantic-motormouth fashion, they lose their patience and regret following orders.
Later after all the credits have rolled, two more cast members return from the first movie. We visit a defeated, distraught Sivana (Mark Strong) still in his jail cell, still scribbling mystical hieroglyphs on all the walls in a vain attempt to recreate his past successes but running out of blank tiles. He’s interrupted by a special guest: a tiny green caterpillar on the windowsill again. Mister Mind, star of the Shazam! end credits (again voiced by the director) swears to Sivana he’s still working on his fiendish master plan for them to totally take over the world…which is taking forever because he’s very tiny and commuting takes him forever. It’s a cute gag, but ignores how the comics’ original Mister Mind was smart enough to get wherever he needed to be just fine.
Mostly he’s stalling for time until and unless The Powers That Be decide audiences are prepared for him to step up and become the World’s Smallest Big Bad. Unless this sequel is doing more awesomely at the box office than I think it is, his master plan is doomed before the start.