David F. Sandberg’s “Shazam!” was a fun and surprising entry into the superhero subgenre, as he really managed to show how kids perceive superheroes, specifically, while others were veering away from the awe and wonder of what it feels like to watch these larger-than-life characters. Despite some hiccups in terms of the visual effects, cinematography, and over-dependence on jokes, the heart of the story and its characters shone through. That said, a lot has changed between 2019 and 2023. The behind-the-scenes situation over at DC and Warner Brothers is a mess. Zachary Levi has outed himself as an anti-vaxxer. Ezra Miller has been on a crime spree. Gal Gadot has shown shades of Zionism. James Gunn and Peter Safran, the new heads of the DC universe have announced many new and unique projects and are trying their best to take things in the right direction. And amidst all this, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” truly feels like a breath of fresh air that doesn’t just re-energize the DCU but the superhero subgenre as well.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” starts off with the daughters of Atlas, Hespera (played by Helen Mirren), and Kalypso (played by Lucy Liu), who successfully steal the magical staff that the Wizard (portrayed by Djimon Hounsou) used to turn Billy Batson (Asher Angel and Zachary Levi) into Shazam. Since the staff’s energy is low, Hespera and Kalypso want to take the powers of Batson, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer and Adam Brody), Eugene (Ross Butler and Ian Chen), Darla (Meagan Good and Faithe Herman), Mary (played by Grace Caroline Currey), and Pedro (D.J. Cotrono and Jovan Armand) and bring their homeworld back to its former glory. By the time Billy and the rest of the Shazamily learn about this, Freddy gets captured by Hespera, Kalypso, and the third daughter of Atlas, Anthea (played by Rachel Zegler). The city of Philadelphia is closed off with a magical dome, which the daughters will remove as soon as Billy and the rest decide to give up their powers.
From the first frame to the last, Sandberg, Gayden, and Morgan play out “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” like a full-blown horror fantasy flick. There are gods versus superheroes, mythological realms, ancient artifacts that need research that can only be done by reading even more ancient books from a massive library, spells being cast, minotaurs, cyclops (which looks a lot like the one made by Ray Harryhausen, but only smaller), harpies, manticores, and unicorns! But in order to ground all these over-the-top elements, the writers do two smart things. Firstly, they use a literal dome to limit the extent of the plot’s impact, thereby bottling up the stakes until it explodes. And secondly, they pit a family against another family. Since both of these units are dysfunctional by nature, it leads to a lot of internal and external drama. However, the thing that allows one to succeed and the other to fail is the need to stick together instead of establishing a hierarchy. In addition to all that, the writers create an ample amount of space for some adorable and rip-roaring comedy, with the highlight being a letter sent to the Daughters of Atlas from the Shazamily.
The first two-thirds of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” look, sound, and feel amazing. There are a lot of genuinely imaginative visual effects, CGI, and practical effects in the action sequences. I have never seen teleportation done in the way that Anthea does. It weirdly reminded me of “Malignant,” where the physical environment morphs from one place to another to show that the character has changed locations. And now I think this is the standard for teleportation sequences. If any other superhero franchise wants to use a teleporting character, they have to top this. The Shazam lair is intricately designed and made me want to take a trip to that place. Sandberg brilliantly used the city and citizens of Philadelphia in the last film, and it is put to even better use in the sequel. I love how chill everyone is about the dome until things go horribly wrong. They taunt Billy and the Shazamily constantly for their chaotic methods and cheer them on when they do things correctly. The use of the superheroes’ powers to one-up each other at every opportunity is entertaining. The introduction of the dragon and its way of instilling fear is insanely cool. That said, when it’s out in the open, along with a lot of other elements, the movie runs into some lighting and pacing issues.
The cast of the film is fantastic through and through. I was worried about how they were going to use Dame Helen Mirren because, at the end of the day, this is a superhero film. But she gets to bring a lot of her menacing energy from “Excalibur” (which is one of the greatest fantasy films of all time) and puts some fear into the heroes’ hearts. Lucy Liu is fine. She is imposing until she starts riding the dragon. Once she gets on the dragon, she isn’t properly utilized. Between these two legends, Rachel Zegler manages to hold her own. The warm and empathetic side of Anthea is palpable. Levi, Angel, Brody, Butler, Chen, Good, Herman, Currey, Cotrona, Armand, Hounsou, Marta Milans, and Cooper Andrews are amazing together and during their individual moments. A small moment between Angel and Milan, where they see each other as son and mother, brought tears to my eyes. However, the star of the film is Jack Dylan Grazer. He channels shock, horror, panic, fun, and heartbreaking sadness in such a relatable way that I can’t help but laud him for exhibiting such finesse at such a young age.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” is such a good movie that I wish the artists and producers involved in the making of projects like these were honest, level-headed people who don’t play with the lives of so many creatives. I am not a big fan of separating the art from the artist, which is why it’s tough for me to see this in isolation. I know it’s coming from Warner Brothers, which is a studio that has upended the lives of so many people who were giving their hearts and souls to the movies and shows they were attached to. I know that the poster boy of the movie I’ve just watched is an unscientific person, and that too at a time when being scientific is of utmost importance. Still, I’ve tried my best to put all that to the side and appreciate the work that everyone else has put in because all of them aren’t bad, and I don’t want to degrade a film because of a handful of dumb individuals. Keeping all that in mind, I recommend watching “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and hugging your family members if they care for you. If they don’t, then take a page out of Anthea’s book and find those who love you for who you are and plan a trip through the mortal realm.