Shazam! Fury of the Gods review

A mismatched lead, bad makeup choice & sluggish action taint Shazam! Fury of the Gods

2 out 5 stars

Every time I review a new superhero film, I try to remind myself that these films are for kids. It’s a mantra worth repeating, particularly if you have to sit through many of them. They’re made for a pre-teen audience, not a hag-like millennial who’s closer to a pile of ash by pop cultural standards than a viable prospective consumer. Before people accuse me of being a hater, it should be noted that I dived into Shazam, Fury of the Gods! with an open mind and an open heart.

As with most superhero films, my immediate reaction to this expensive sequel is that it’s “fine.” It follows the expected beats of most genre films: cold open, set-up of emotional stakes, interminable action set piece, twist and then un-twist. Director David F. Sandberg, who started making horror shorts, brings a little nightmare touch to the action, folding into the film elements of suspense and horror. The new additions to the cast, Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler, counterpoint some of the silliness of the Shazam child family of superheroes. They do their best.

The film, however, begins to fray at the edges the more you think about it. Zachary Levy, as Shazam, bears little resemblance to his child alter-ego Billy Baston (Asher Angel). His goofy performance gears much younger than the nearly 18-year-old character, even if the film amps up on the not-so-coded sex jokes. Even if we were to stretch our suspension of disbelief to understand Shazam as a manifestation of Billy’s Id, they share so little in terms of mannerisms, tonalities and even word choices that it’s near impossible to bridge the gap. 

In stark contrast, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) and his superhero alter-ego work remarkably well. Adam Brody looks the part and pantomimes a teen boy’s idea of heroism with good humour. Freddy creates a superhero persona he believes will attract praise and adoration, particularly from women. In moments where Freddy tries to leverage his proximity to superheroes to impress a new girl at school, we understand his adolescent understanding of what women want but also his limited sense of heroism and bravery. It’s clear at this junction in the franchise that Freddy is the most compelling character up on screen by a long shot.

The movie’s opening sequence uses broad comedy and Pompeii-inspired horror visuals to set a more magical tone for the film. By reviving imagery and lore from Greek mythology, the movie positions the villains as stoic ancients, entirely at odds with our teen leads. Mirren and Liu have the elegance to pull this off and the talent to maintain a certain coolness throughout the sillier moments. Unfortunately, Mirren’s make-up, particularly some white mascara, does her a disservice as it looks clumpy and poorly applied rather than something fantastical or naturalistic. Lucy Liu, though, completely steals the show. Why isn’t she a bigger movie star?

Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu in Shazam! Fury of the Gods

Overall, the magical elements half-work. A lot of it feels like low-rent Harry Potter, which might appeal to some, but overall has long run its course otherwise. The Greek myth-inspired monsters are relatively cool though they’re pretty weightless and muddy, as is the new norm in the world of rushed and underpaid VFX artists forced to hit impossible deadlines. For the most part, though, the film’s visual identity remains virtually indistinguishable from your average Marvel or DC fare. That’s intended, but if you’re forced to watch many of these films, the monotony of their homogeneity has long set in. 

Yet, something about the action also feels limp and repetitive. An early sequence featuring a bridge collapse features many good ideas, but the rhythm feels off. The use of “I need a hero,” feels like a clever joke, but the song’s bpm just doesn’t lend itself well to an energetic action set-piece, slowing things down unnecessarily. Even as the film accelerates towards its finish line, the action scenes go on and on without any obvious highlights. It’s hard to survive without your eyes glazing over. 

Shazam! Fury of the Gods might not be an outward disaster, but few superhero films are. David F. Sandberg is clearly an incredibly talented filmmaker saddled with material most filmmakers would struggle to make compelling and cohesive. It would be great to see him returning to something with more freedom to explore genre tropes without as much studio interference. As is, these movies are calibrated to be just good enough to appeal to viewers who were likely too young even to watch the original Iron Man when it came out. More so than other films of the genre, this one gears a little older; a little more frightening and funny, so in that sense, it might feel vaguely refreshing compared to literal toddler fodder. ■

Shazam! Fury of the Gods (directed by David F. Sandberg)

Shazam, Fury of the Gods! opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 17.

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