Shazam! Sequel’s Low Stakes, Self-Contained Plotting, and Familial Warmth a Pleasing Combo
Everyone who got a kick out of the low stakes, self-contained storytelling and goofily juvenile antics on display in 2019’s Shazam! will likely be equally satisfied with its sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Even with a slightly bigger budget and better villains, director David F. Sandberg’s follow-up is proudly more of the same, and that’s just fine.
Teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is still dealing with all the crazy events that magically transformed him into a superhero (Zachary Levi) and led to his doling out a variety of similar abilities to his foster siblings Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary (Grace Caroline Currey), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Darla (Faithe Herman), and Eugene (Ian Chen). But he never could have imagined the catastrophic repercussions he unleashed when, two years prior, during their fight with Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), he snapped the staff of the ancient Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) that granted him and his family their abilities.
A trio of goddesses — Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler) — have been freed from their prison, and all they need is the staff to put a plan in motion that could either restore their mythical realm to its enchanted splendor or instead send the human world into a pit of chaos and misery. Billy and his family are thrust into the fight of their lives, each wondering if they’re too young and too inexperienced to have the fate of humanity sitting on their shoulders.
Once again, Sanberg tries to blend a playful, Amblin-esque tone with some decidedly nastier ideas. An opening sequence at a museum, where Hespera and Kalypso retrieve the Wizard’s broken staff, is aggressively violent. It culminates in a petrifying crescendo that would make Medusa cringe, and parents with youngsters in tow should keep this in mind before buying tickets. There’s an even worse, if brief, bit later on in which the director seemingly pays homage to the terrifying opening from M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise laughable The Happening, and it’s suitably bone-chilling in its destructive splatter.
The rest of the film is a blend of every teen-friendly ’80s adventure you can think of, which is a positive and a negative, frequently at the same time. This can make things feel unbalanced, like the genuinely understated sweetness of Freddie inadvertently flirting with an incognito (and unexpectedly smitten) Anthea immediately juxtaposed with the sophomoric egotism of the former’s superhero alter ego (Adam Brody) acting like an inauthentically scripted version of a high school dork.
Yet the emotions revolving around chosen family, acceptance, diversity, understanding, and empathy remain pure. The foster household that selfless parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews) have created for their children remains exquisite. I liked how returnee Henry Gayden (There’s Something Inside Your House) and series newcomer Chris Morgan (a veteran of the Fast and Furious franchise — and it shows) have determinedly structured their screenplay to revolve around the core group, putting front and center the dynamics that make each who they are, and the difficulties they are having communicating with one another now that they’re all superheroes.
Levi dives even more into his Chuck-era bag of tricks than he did in the prior installment, and this can get obnoxious. Thankfully he tones down his schtick considerably in the final act, when he grounds his performance in something honest and pure. This helps make Billy’s decisions during the climax mean something, and even though I saw this ending coming from a mile away, my heartstrings were still tugged to the point that I didn’t really care how obvious this turn of events was.
There are hints and allusions that this series may continue, and if the sequel proves to be a hit, even with all the upheaval in the DC cinematic universe, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is so self-contained that fitting this hero back into the larger overarching narrative won’t be especially difficult. But if this is the final incarnation of the Shazam family’s adventures, they’ve gone out with electrifying flair and shockingly pleasant enthusiasm. Bigger isn’t always better, and sometimes “more of the same” is exactly what’s needed to keep an audience entertained.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)