Shazam! Fury of the Gods pulls off the two epic feats necessary for any great sequel: It expands on what was great about the original, and it finds a new journey for its heroes to go on that still feels natural to the characters.
For a lot of sequels, devotion to the first task gets in the way of the second. Filmmakers are so focused on turning their first success into a formula that they reset their protagonists back to where they started from. Superhero movies seem especially prone to this type of reset button, as the original comics they’re based on were designed to retell the same stories multiple times for generations of readers. But the best superhero sequels rise above this trap, allowing their characters to continue to learn without throwing hard-won growth overboard in the process.
In the original Shazam!, 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) learned to trust his new foster family: Rosa and Victor Vazquez and their other foster kids — Mary, Freddy, Pedro, Eugene and Darla. After a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) gives Billy the power to transform into a Superman-type hero (played by Zachary Levi) when he says a magic word, he finds a way to share his powers with his new siblings, creating his own super team.
In the sequel, Billy is 17, and for all his superpowers, he’s terrified that he doesn’t know how to be a useful adult without his brothers and sisters to guide him. Even worse, he’s afraid he’ll become a burden to his cash-strapped parents when he ages out of the foster-care system. He insists he and his siblings only go out in their superhero guises as a group, to pool their gifts. After spending the first film pushing his family away, now he’s making the exact opposite mistake. If you’ve ever worried about pulling your weight for the people you love, Billy’s angst may land close to home.
Thankfully, angst is just a seasoning in a very fun film. Where the original Shazam! didn’t give nearly enough screen time to most of the amazing Vazquez family, Fury of the Gods is an ensemble delight from start to finish. Every member of the familia gets moments to shine. Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy gets a surprising love interest, Anne (Rachel Zegler), and a great buddy-movie subplot teaming him up with Hounsou’s wizard. Mostly just a dick in the first film, Hounsou’s character gets called out for his poor choices and gains the chance to learn from them; the actor seems to be enjoying himself in a way he never got to last time.
And then there are the villains: Dame Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu as the Daughters of Atlas, an extremely disgruntled pair of Greek gods. When’s the last time you saw a big-studio superhero movie where the villains were women in their 50s and / or 70s? And aside from a heavily green-screened moment or two, the actors seem to be living their best lives, unleashing innovative takes on dragons, unicorns and other fantasy beasts, chomping down on the dialogue in their haughtiest British accents (even Liu), and allowing themselves to be utterly baffled by modern teenagers. The funniest scene in the film involves Mirren simply reading a letter aloud.
The Daughters are ticked because the wizard stole the magical powers of the gods in order to create their new heroes; the name Shazam is in fact an acrostic poem continuing the names of the various gods used as unwilling superpower donors. It’s a simple enough motive to drive a plot, but paired with our multiracial and economically disadvantaged family of superheroes, it asks interesting questions about who is worthy of power. It turns out power is like love: Anyone can be worthy if given the chance. No one is perfect, but being worthy means being curious, empathetic and willing to ask for help from the people who love us.
And yes, to address the minotaur in the room: Shazam! Fury of the Gods is apparently one of the last gasps of the current DC Comics movie universe, about to be swept away by James Gunn and Peter Safran’s new broom. It was a shared universe with more misses than hits and some problematic personalities involved. Shazam!’s own Levi has recently been called out for showing his posterior on the internet, as too many white male stars have done, including endorsing alt-right pundits. We can’t tell you whether or not to factor these elements into your viewing decisions. We can say that this film is diverse, inclusive and, despite one fantastic cameo from the wider DC movie world, stands beautifully on its own, even if you skip the first Shazam!
Fury of the Gods is Teen Titans vs. Clash of the Titans, and by the gods does it work.
The Blu-ray, DVD and digital home releases of the film include a commentary track and a solid 90 minutes of behind-the-scenes features, including a half-hour of deleted scenes. The deleted scenes include a few good laughs but nothing that would have been better off staying in. The behind-the-scenes documentaries, like the movie itself, give every member of the main cast time to play, including both the kid and adult versions of the “Shazamily” of heroes. They create the impression of a wonderful energy on the set — a director and crew having a ball creating something whimsical, ridiculous and empathetic, and actors who genuinely enjoyed spending time together.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, digital and streaming on Max.
Rachael and John Derrick have been writing together since 2006. Under the name John Clifford, John wrote & directed a one-act play, The Dream in Question, as well as several short plays for sci-fi conventions. Rachael worked in group homes, journalism and then international education before becoming a therapist. They live with their son and two cats in Indianapolis. Their first original superhero novel, Bounceback, about an adult woman who turns into a teenager with superpowers, is available now on Amazon.