‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ Zaps the Joy Out of the DC Franchise 

Like a bolt of lightning dropping out of the sky, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” seems to announce that we’re finally reaching a certain peak with superhero formulas. One can’t get too harsh with this movie, considering it’s basically one of the last holdouts of what used to be the DC Cinematic Universe, now gearing up for a makeover under James Gunn. It still deserves to be assessed on its own as the sequel to 2019’s “Shazam!” That movie was one of the better DC offerings, full of genuinely fun comedy and a departure from the brand’s usual, brooding style. It brought to life the idea of kids fantasizing about being heroes, then actually experiencing it. At times it could be a bit corny, yet that was also part of the charm. 

This sequel, also directed by David F. Sandberg, returns to the usual ingredients we find in bloated, CGI-heavy distractions. Orphan teen-turned-hero Shazam, Billy (Asher Angel) is still living with his foster family in Philadelphia. As we saw at the end of the first movie, his adoptive siblings were all granted their own superhero personas via the power of wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Billy tries to keep the team spirit going even if the group’s attempts at doing good have earned them the name “Philadelphia Fiasco” on the news. Mary (Grace Caroline) is particularly restless because she has no friends and wants to go to college. Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) meets a girl at school who seems to actually like him, Anthea (Rachel Zegler). He also likes flying out on his own to fight crime, which annoys Billy. They have no idea that the ruthless Daughters of Atlantis, led by Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), have arrived to take back the power of the gods from the super siblings.

While the first “Shazam!” worked from being lean, sticking to one villain and focusing on Billy being a 14-year-old suddenly turning into a grown, chiseled super being (Zachary Levi), “Fury of the Gods” feels crammed, yet empty. Some of the cast already look older but retain their original chemistry. Sandberg seems to toy with this in the first act, establishing tensions between the group because they are maturing, except for Darla (Faithe Herman), who even as her superhero self (Meagan Good), remains goofy and innocent. We learn all too quickly that the kids’ guardians (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) are having problems with the bills, but they factor very little in the story except for being tossed into the action during the third act. They really don’t seem to mind that somehow their entire group of adoptive, some underage, children leave the house for extreme amounts of time on end. 

Freddy almost provides the stronger dramatic thread in liking Anthea, attempting to impress her with his super alter ego (Adam Brody), only to discover his first girlfriend is out to kill him (as tends to happen). Her older sisters are Hespera and Kalypso, played by two great actors reduced to digitally floating, extending their arms and firing evil magic with mean stares. From here on out the movie turns into another standard stomp where every move can be guessed. What real comedy survives comes in spurts, sometimes with the return of Djimoun Hounsou as the cranky wizard who needs to escape a magical prison, annoyed with getting stuck with Freddy. The Daughters of Atlantis have stolen his big magical staff, which was broken in two by Billy and apparently tossed away during the last movie. 

While Sandberg does keep a visual style that doesn’t go too hard for the Zack Snyder aesthetic of most DC movies, the material he’s working with is a system reaching the breaking point. There’s an autopilot mode that kicks in and Hespera and Kalypso, who naturally want galactic domination, summon armies of CGI monsters who terrorize downtown Philadelphia. We even get fiery-eyed unicorns, which are easily tamed by Darla with a bag of Skittles (one of the movie’s better comedy breaks). Into the sky goes Billy for another round of crashing through buildings and rubble with the exact same framing we’ve already seen in “Black Adam,” “Batman v Superman” and everything else. At one point, Lucy Liu rides a massive dragon that breathes icy fire borrowed from “Game of Thrones.” 

Aside from a good running joke about Billy having a major crush on Wonder Woman, too much of “Fury of the Gods” buries the original spirit of “Shazam!” Though, it should be remembered that technically this will all be revamped under new management at DC. Since the beginning the brand has been plagued with comparisons to Marvel, and this movie even ends with a bonus scene that feels like a parody of those early MCU entries that always concluded with Tony Stark recruiting a new Avenger. What is truly missed is that feeling of the costumes and effects being decoration for something more. “Shazam!” was about the perils of growing up. A sequel should have continued the theme while raising the stakes. There’s no need to just focus on digital galactic mayhem, since everyone in these stories wants to rule the world. A fresh start might be just what these heroes need.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods” releases March 17 in theaters nationwide.