It’s easy to imagine why the Shazam! Fury of the Gods filmmakers would share their boy-to-Joe-Rogan-guest hero’s imposter syndrome. The magical ability to transform into a jacked Zachary Levi isn’t something anyone is envious of, and it certainly hasn’t solved the life of rowdy orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Instead, it’s introduced a host of new problems familiar to those well-versed in superhero lore (specifically Spider-Man, quintessential high-schooler): His family is threatened, his ability to help his city is under criticism by the media and he’s not sure that he’s worthy of this great power—let alone this great responsibility. He’s quickly risen to the ranks of Wonder Woman and Superman, but at heart, he’s just a goofball kid.
With the first Shazam!, director David F. Sandberg and writer Henry Gayden capitalized on the abject joylessness of DC films by making the first half of their movie into a funny viral-video riff on coming of age in a superpowered world. The second half devolved into the same messy tropes that’ve come to define superhero films as a form, but there was a spark. There was personality.
Four years later, Fury of the Gods is no longer a novelty. Comic characters poking fun at themselves is the standard; the person doing it best at DC, James Gunn, is now running their superhero business. That leaves Sandberg and Gayden (whose script was co-written, tellingly, by resident Fast & Furious scribe Chris Morgan) as representatives of the blockbuster franchise version of the Peter principle. They haven’t been promoted past their point of competence, but rather were competent and creative enough to see their competence and creativity consumed by the expansive demands of the Superhero Sequel Model. Shazam! wasn’t the most exciting or heartfelt of superhero movies, but it knew how to use its gimmick. Fury of the Gods grows in scope and scale, drowning that gimmick in mediocrity. Like I said, it’s easy to imagine its creators empathizing with a hero feeling out of his depth—especially when the scene directed with the most joy is a crass mid-movie Skittles commercial. One of the biggest takeaways from Fury of the Gods is that Sandberg probably just wants to direct Super Bowl ads.
If only Fury of the Gods was able to use any of this insight. As a former and current employee, overseen by a boss, I understand why it wasn’t. Everyone’s gotta answer to someone, and Shazam! has to answer to the boring Superhero Sequel Model. If emotion or character grew beyond the three lines of screenplay dedicated, systematically, to each brazenly shoehorned developmental beat, there might not be room enough for the endless barrage of lore-deepening set pieces. Fury of the Gods pits a family of six young heroes against a mythic sisterhood of three villains—something was going to fall through the cracks. You just wish it wasn’t everything that made the first movie watchable.
In its place are elements now so familiar you’d swear they’d been directly lifted from one of the other forgettable comic films clogging the theaters. An enchanted pen, silently transcribing the verbatim ramblings of Billy and his siblings, is as desperate a grasp at silent comedy as Doctor Strange’s cloak (itself an imitation of Aladdin’s carpet). The ill-defined powers of Rachel Zegler’s Anthea—the youngest-looking of those villainous sisters alongside the wooden Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren—rearrange the world with the same insubstantial architectural swirling as Spider-Man: No Way Home. Is it a tragedy of genre saturation, both movie-haltingly flashy and deeply unimpressive. Everything is constantly moving and you don’t feel a thing.
Buried underneath this, catching our attention like real human skin on a green screen, is a reminder of why Shazam! worked—and even this feels wild-eyed and desperate, perhaps because it knows it’s under siege. Billy’s foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) remains the scene-stealing motormouth, something the filmmakers recognize by all but removing the kid-to-adult dynamic from the other characters—including the ostensible protagonist. Angel could’ve shot his scenes in an afternoon, making Levi’s “I’m just a slang-slinging kid” shtick feel gratingly unmotivated. Grazer is still a talent, but one so starkly prized over the rest of the cast that he’s allowed to overdo everything he’s otherwise good at. He gets a romance, a sneaky spy scene, a weepy mourning moment and endless quips after being physically beaten. It’s all too fast, too big, too pleased with itself. His performance needed direction, but one imagines Sandberg clapping joyously off-camera, simply grateful that someone is enlivening his two hours of concept art.
Some of these designs—lightning zapping into a magic crystal (yes, one that absorbs power “like a battery” and, like all those other genre MacGuffins, can overload and explode) and illuminating Levi’s face–remind you that Sandberg is a technically skilled horror craftsman who understands how to use light and dark. Most of them remind you how little that matters in these kinds of movies. A dragon (yes there’s a random dragon, and it all but takes over the third act, making Liu and Mirren’s phoned-in vacation financing all the easier) is as intangible and threadbare as its rotted wings, and as useless as the powers the script forgets as soon as it introduces them. A Harryhausen-esque Cyclops looks like it’s selling car insurance.
And the humans mostly just stand there, raising their arms and furrowing their brows. Levi lifts his arms to fly, Mirren’s goddess (who can control the usefully vague “elements”) does the ol’ Magneto with her arms to do…whatever the plot needs her powers to do, and Zegler hesitantly extends her hands, clearly assured that movie magic will eventually come out. Sometimes the cast just trades half-hearted jokes, killing time until they turn around in shock to see what new CG addition to the plot has just crashed into Philadelphia. Grazer is asked to physically move around the sets the most, and he’s playing the character that uses a crutch to walk. Like the Avengers films, there are just so many characters that getting them all into frame is the end goal of any visual direction. It’s a stagnant movie, full of motionless husks superimposed onto Magic: The Gathering card art.
This is all in service of a story that, much like Marshawn Lynch, is just here so its filmmakers don’t get fired. Amusing ideas about kids in super-bodies have been wholesale replaced by creaky comic lore, with Shazam! intersecting with the same Greek-ish pantheon as Wonder Woman in order to bring DC’s young class clown into the dour fold. It is the lowest of the comicbook plotlines (the excuse to fight) lightened with the lowest of comicbook movie humor (gesturing towards idiotic storytelling and saying “isn’t that idiotic?”) It doesn’t help that Fury of the Gods seems to have taken this self-deprecation to heart, having nothing but disdain for its own details—Liu’s goddess, for example, can control people’s thoughts with a whisper, unless that person is a main character. It’s writing as amateurish, witless and mercenary as the mid-movie candy commercial, and selling a far less appealing product.
It’s sad but not unexpected that Fury of the Gods fell so far. Shazam!’s tonal confusion came from a common “have your cake and eat it too” desire to both parody the silly parts of a genre while fully falling prey to the same kind of tropes that make the genre so easily parodied in the first place. Shazam! had a clear vision for its tone, but not for how that would interact with the tepid final conflict that every superhero movie is contractually obligated to include. Sandberg and Gayden’s abilities met their limits. They didn’t know how to turn their smarmy piss-taking into a finale (like how Gunn’s first Guardians film deflated its showdown into a dance-off), and the template filled in the gaps. Fury of the Gods has been asked to abandon the parody completely—or, rather, what was once a parody has been corrupted into convention—and in response, its filmmakers have fully turned their project over to the rigid confines of the template. This is the fate that awaits all indie filmmakers snapped up by these machines, the hopes of working within the system dashed against the realities of the cinematic assembly line. As long as blockbuster filmmakers are effectively going to work in soulless, joyless factories overseen by flowchart-loving foremen, this kind of milquetoast settling is, to use the vocabulary of superhero movies, inevitable.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Henry Gayden, Chris Morgan
Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Ross Butler, Meagan Good, D.J. Cotrona, Grace Caroline Currey, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Djimon Hounsou, Rachel Zegler, Lucy Liu, Helen Mirren
Release Date: March 17, 2023
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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