de facto film reviews 2.5 stars

The 2019 Shazam! was seen as a breath of fresh air, not only for the DC universe which was licking their wounds after the disastrous results of the 2017 theatrically-released Justice League, but for the superhero genre as a whole. A playful and charming superhero movie with more in common with Big than Man of Steel, the story of a teen boy who is granted the ability to turn into an adult superhero with just a single word felt more, well, human than many of its contemporaries. The follow-up, helmed by returning filmmaker David F. Sandberg, aims for bigger and better, but ultimately settles for just bigger.

Since the events of the first film, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and his superhero alter ego Shazam (Zachary Levi), along with his foster siblings have been fighting crime together since Billy transferred the magic of the Wizard’s staff to each of his siblings. Now, the Daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu) and Anthea (Rachel Zegler) have returned to reclaim the Wizard’s staff and enact revenge.

The magic of the first Shazam! came from the focus of Billy and his dilemma of figuring out how to be a superhero. The kind of body-swap/coming-of-age premise the genre hadn’t really seen before, and it paid off. With Fury of the Gods, most of the sweet coming-of-age elements are excised entirely for a more run-of-the-mill, bombastic superhero film. The first film had a strong emotional undercurrent with Billy attempting to find his mother who abandoned him at a young age. Witnessing the character’s arc from someone who blew off the idea of family, to someone who becomes very protective of his newfound family made for a warm, thematically intelligent film. With the sequel, we get hints of new character growth early on. We find Billy attempting to keep his siblings close together despite them wanting to branch off on their own. Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy (Adam Brody plays his superhero counterpart) is beginning to come into his own, which leads to spending less time with his heroic family. Unfortunately, the film never carries those elements to fruition with most character arcs tossed aside by the halfway mark, in favor of more action. It becomes clear at a certain point that Sandberg is struggling to balance the many overstuffed elements of the script, while maintaining the breeziness of the first film.

Given far more screentime this go around is Zachary Levi, whose man-child schtick has started to become tired at this point. Levi’s presence in the first film was immensely likable, but was kept somewhat grounded. Here, the character just seems immature and doesn’t have any new arc to speak of, leaving him stranded with nothing to reign him in.  Rachel Zegler and Jack Dylan Grazer bring the most in terms of charm and humanity, with Zegler’s Anthea a far more sympathetic character than her on-screen sisters. Helen Mirren is notably having fun, adding some gravitas to a role that, admittedly, isn’t a generic baddie, but isn’t far off from one. Lucy Liu, however, is playing the generic baddie, who just looks bored, even as she rides a mythological dragon for a majority of the final act. Meagan Good is, again, delightful as the superhero counterpart to Darla (Faithe Herman), the youngest sibling of the bunch. Sandberg wisely brings back Djimon Hounsou’s The Wizard, giving the Oscar-nominee an all-too-rare opportunity to flex his impeccable comedic chops, and single-handedly walks away with the film’s funniest moments.

Sandberg’s detailed direction, taken inspiration from the likes of Spielberg, Zemeckis and Joe Dante, is more visually assured than most current superhero directors, but still suffers from what feels like too many cooks in one kitchen. The film’s utter refusal to take risks is maybe the most glaring aspect. The finale appears to make a rather strong creative decision — one that would’ve made sense given the recent leadership change over at DC — but it almost immediately walks it back. A highly unfortunate Skittles product placement is also egregious, whose laziness echoes the cringe-inducing tie-ins of the latter Michael Bay Transformers films.

There are one or two vibrant set pieces, notably a bridge rescue in the first act, amusingly set to “Holdin Out For a Hero”, and the director does occasionally bring some humorous visual gags that work. Perhaps it’s because of recent CG slops Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Adam, but the fact that Sandberg and co. utilize practical costumes and sets when possible does make a difference compared to recent superhero outings that are drenched in nothing but green screen. To be able to bask in the subtle details of a character’s lived-in costume is a sight that’s becoming less and less frequent.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods trades in the warmth and small-scale charm of the first film for a bloated, generic sequel that does offer its share of entertainment, but pales in comparison to the first film. With its lack of an emotional core and lifeless plotting, you can practically feel the filmmakers being pulled in several different directions.