The DC Extended Universe, which will come to a close later this year with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, hasn’t done many things right, but director David F. Sandberg‘s Shazam! is one of the few exceptions. The title character is played by a charming Zachary Levi, and his teenage alter-ego is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who lives in a Philadelphia foster home. He’s gifted magical, god-like superpowers by an ancient wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), and they allow him to transform himself into a muscle-bound superhero, albeit one who still behaves like a childish teenager, which may explain why this film refuses to commit to any consequences whatsoever. Thus, it ultimately represents a step backward for this witty but unreliable franchise.
The origin story for this particular superhero is unquestionably amusing. As a demigod, Shazam! retains Billy’s teenage sensibilities, anxieties, and tendencies — including his awkwardness around girls — while showing off supernatural strength, wisdom, and ability. The two series of traits coexist clumsily with each other, as does Shazam! with his young friends-turned-partners in fighting crime.
Shazam! is joined by a cadre of equally-awkward societal rejects, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Glazer, and played by Adam Brody in superhero mode), Eugene Choi (Ross Butler), and Darla Dudley (Meagan Good), each one of them clumsy tweens in their own ways. Shazam! has gifted his powers to them as well, but soon they form a band of flying misfits termed the “Philly Fiascos” for all their impish failures to fully save the day.
The opening sequence of Shazam! Fury of the Gods illustrates this duality between serious stakes and lack thereof. A suspension bridge is collapsing over the river, threatening the lives of hundreds of innocent drivers. Each hero contributes to saving every human life — not a single one is lost — in their own coquettish and puerile ways. One stops too long to admire and fawn over kittens, another focuses on literally picking up the more attractive girls first. But they ultimately fail to save the bridge itself, undone by their own inexperience. And when they’re called to account for their actions by Shazam!, none of them are interested in learning a valuable lesson from their mistakes, as they’re more focused on sports and their own dating lives. So on one hand, there’s a terrible disaster, but on the other, the stakes are never all that high, as no one dies, the bridge is rebuilt, the city mocks the quintet, and all is well.
The plot thickens, though, when a trio of wicked sisters — Hespera, Kalypso, and Anthea, who in Greek mythology are loosely related to each other as daughters of Atlas — enter the proceedings, hellbent on recovering a staff that could restore their power and glory. Played with entertaining zeal by Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, and with slightly less dexterity by West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler, the sisters treat humanity as immaterial in their quest for revenge, and Philadelphia soon finds itself at the epicenter of an invasion of creepy creatures from a nether realm.
Again, Fury of the Gods presents all of this with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. The invading aliens spring from a tree planted in the middle of the Philadelphia Phillies’ home stadium, which is a convenient and amusing setting to destroy. A lot of expensive real estate is decimated, but conveniently, no human life is lost, and while the heroes get cut down to size, you know that no amount of cinematic fakeouts will preclude any of them from returning for the third installment… if there is one, given James Gunn‘s new vision for DC’s stable of characters.
The reason that Fury‘s failure to take anything seriously doesn’t bring the sequel to its knees is that Shazam!’s entire existence is predicated on the idea of not taking himself too seriously while constantly pretending to do so. Just like a teenager. So when the daughters of Atlas wreak havoc on the City of Brotherly Love and each other, when the love interests play out in corny and ridiculous ways, it will confirm your suspicions more than betray them.
The movie is entirely unsurprising, from its timid references to Wonder Woman to when the superheroes are seemingly stripped of their powers by the evil sisters’ blue fires of sorcery. You know exactly how each of these subplots will play out, and yet, somehow, this doesn’t make them any less entertaining. Even the script by Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan fits this mold — funny, playful, low stress. The gadfly of extreme seriousness that pervades and ultimately unravels most other DCEU films is simply absent, which is a modest delight.
Fury of the Gods also offers good production values, as Composer Christophe Beck, a superhero movie veteran of both Marvel and DC, knows how to strike the precise tone that the proceedings call for. The visual effects team does a nice job of providing visual magic during its lightning-infused climactic sequence, and Louise Mingenbach‘s costumes, from the silly tights donned by our superheroes to the menacing but fierce outfits worn by the devilish sisters, all shine with gusto.
They say that part of the power of the movies is pure magic, the kind that makes you believe that everything you see on that 40-foot screen is real and has consequences. Shazam! Fury of the Gods doesn’t quite persuade in either fashion — you instinctively know from the get-go that the story will come full circle and that nothing will ultimately matter except whether you were entertained enough. The telegraphing of that critical fact nearly dooms this film, but its sincere and heartfelt childish revelry prevents it from being a colossal failure, and in the end, you do end up entertained… just enough.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema.