After the surprising success of the first Shazam! film, the prospect of more adventures of the former Marvel Family (now I guess Shazamily), from director David F. Sandberg, was something to hold onto with pandemic delays, VFX-related delays, and several regime changes at all levels of the corporate ladder. So now, finally, Shazam! Fury of the Gods bursts into theaters, and it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. This isn’t a tale told by a group of collective idiots, but it is another great example of “more doesn’t equal better”-style of Hollywood filmmaking.
The most frustrating part of watching Fury, besides its ultimately inert spectacle and drama, is that you can see the signposts for a “better” version of this movie. This is not to claim that some alternative cut exists that could recuperate this film: director Sandberg has been adamant for months that this film had been picture-locked well before the latest regime change, and is “his” film. So, unlike pretty much every other film since Man of Steel, audiences can’t claim tortious studio interference. Sometimes movies just don’t come together and leave you wanting, despite everyone’s best efforts and good faith actions. The decisions made in this film fail to both capitalize on the foundation laid in the first film and perpetuate the feeling and tonality that made the first film successful.
Highlighting the shortcomings of a film’s script feels a little odd to me, because screenplays are just the blueprint of a film and an often disrespected set of plans for these kinds of films in particular. After all, a film ultimately comes down to the execution of that plan by various actors above and below the line. What is obvious throughout the film is co-writers Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan’s screenplay verbally nods toward something resembling engaging character drama, that builds from the previous film. Fury of the Gods picks up two years after the first film’s end, with the Shazamily trying their best to work together and protect the city of Philadelphia.
But not everything is as perfect as their idealized alter egos. Billy is anxious about turning 18 in 5 months, becoming a legal adult, and aging out of the foster system. What does that mean for the first family he’s ever had? Mary is still living at home, having chosen to forgo college across the country to go … somewhere (maybe the Community College of Philadelphia) and work to help support her family. It appears that parents Rosa and Victor Vásquez are struggling to keep up with the house after Mary aged out, a struggle that will become harder when Billy ages out. Plus, their home keeps getting struck by lightning. Meanwhile, Freddy wants to become his own person but is suffocating under Billy’s over-controlling big brother persona. This is to say nothing of how the film’s antagonists, the Daughters of Atlas, are set up to mirror the Shazamily, and Billy’s Moff Tarkin-like need to lead and control his siblings. These interesting starting points are not built upon in any meaningful way outside of plot contrivance, turning an excellent cast of actors into shallow caricatures.
Textually, all these nodes of drama exist; they are explicitly mentioned in the film. Nothing in the film’s edit nurtures or supports this drama as it makes a series of tonal miscalculations that puts Fury 180 degrees away from what made the first film an engaging watch. The mythos of “Captain Marvel/Shazam” comics is a bit ludicrous (and racist) in spots the way Golden Age comics often are. But the great thing about the first film was how it had that weirdness, but treated its characters and their emotions with sincerity. If a movie can make you care about its character, you will let them get away with murder. David Sandberg and everyone involved along the way replaces the sincerity of the first film with a jarring post-modern irony that is antithetical to this film.
The big opening Shazamily set piece of the film is a bridge collapse. And what would perhaps usually be a sequence that shows new audiences the powerset of the Shazamily with a bit of tension is turned into a shallow joke set to “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler, as most of the family members reflexively comment on their heroism and mock the danger that threatens hundreds of people. It starts with what appears to be a homage to the bus catch from the first film and a sign of how Billy has improved with catching vehicles, only to be used as an admittedly smooth transition point to move “Hero” from the diegetic space of the film, into the non-diegetic and resulting montage of “heroism.” A recurring gag throughout the film is that the people of Philadelphia might not like the antics of the Shazamily, with the press dubbing them the “Philadelphia Fiasco.” After that sequence, it’s hard not to see why the people don’t like their supposed heroes. The spectacle-laden final act runs in similarly ironic territory, featuring a subplot that is just a Skittles commercials riffing on a joke about Unicorns that Legends of Tomorrow did better years earlier.Continued below
This is not to say that comedy should not be in a Shazam! film, just that this brand of comedy is antithetical to what made the first film work. Jack Dylan Grazer’s performance as Freddy has a compelling moment of physical comedy that is legitimately funny, but it is a a sequence that invites audiences in to laugh with Freddy not act too cool to laugh in the first place.
The tonal dissonance of the film makes me think it was going for a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, an irony that’s shielding against dealing with the trauma at the center of Billy Batson. Except for the fact it fails to replicate the sincerity at the heart of that film, a failure that falls squarely on lead Zachary Levi’s horribly miscalculated performance. Levi’s performance is a Gen X parody of what they think a Zoomer seems to be, horribly addled on sugar, incapable of focusing, and a dozen over strawmen traits. Levi is a mile-a-minute unfunny mess, whose failure to perform here bellies the deeper-seated anxieties that are verbally set up for him. That’s to say nothing of how his energy makes no sense tonally compared to the other idealized selves within the Shazamily: the rest of the Shazamily seem to be acting like themselves. His performance, mixed with the ironic disposition of the film in general, kills any dramatic tension in a film that desperately wants to have the ultimate dramatic tension in its finale — an ultimate sacrifice, that is then deus ex machina-handwaved minutes later, because even when you give the film an inch of emotional investment, it rubs your face in a mile of asphalt.
That frustrating part about Fury is that these signposts exist for an alternative vision, when the film and Levi drop the arm’s length irony and lean into sentimentality for two brief sequences. Asher Angel gets to articulate the anxieties that have been festering within him for months. Levi stops acting like a Zoomer parody and begins to act like… Captain Marvel for a change. And it WORKS. I suddenly cared about what was going on for a few brief seconds, before the film ultimately cuts away to some gag or hollow VFX sequence. Fury of the Gods is not an incompetently put together film. This isn’t Suicide Squad (2016). It just never made me or let me care about this family of heroes, and their collective everyday struggles of being a family.