SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS is a big and bubbly adventure overflowing with wisecracks, mythical creatures and, for the good people who have taken in so many foster children, an explanation for why their house keeps getting hit by lightning. A worthy sequel to its original, it picks up with Billy Batson (Asher Angel) still trying to figure out how to be a minor high-school student and a super-hero. It’s why we pick up his story with his alter ego, Shazam (Zachary Levi) pouring his heart out to a pediatrician about his imposter complex. It’s also a fine way to remind us what happened in part one. This is important, because the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who chose Billy as the champion of humanity in part one, and by extension the foster siblings with whom he shared the superpowers that go with it, isn’t dead, the way so many people would be if they turned to ashes. He’ll be haunting Billy’s dreams with an urgent message.
The urgency comes courtesy of Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), the daughters of Atlas, who have a grudge against humankind. I’m not saying it’s an unprovoked grudge, but I will say the sisters are don’t have a middle ground. They also have a heaping helping of contempt, the which they demonstrate by stealing the not-so-mythical staff of the gods from an Athenian museum, and then set about putting humankind in its collective place.
Meanwhile, Billy’s disabled foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) aka Captain Every Power (Adam Brody), is fretting about aging out of the foster care system and falling hard for the new girl in school, Anna (Rachel Zegler) who seems to be returning at least some of his feelings. His foster sister Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) is fretting about having already aged out of the system and balancing fighting crime with college life, foster sister Darla (Faithe Herman as a kid and Meagan Good as a superhero) is obsessing about unicorns, foster brother Eugene (Ian Chen as a kid, Ross Butler as a superhero) is exploring the nooks and crannies of the Rock of Eternity, and foster brother Pedro (Jovan Armand as a kid, and D.J. Cotrona as a superhero) is worried that people will find out he’s gay. Naturally, they put all that aside as the Atlas sisters invade, bringing death, destruction, and the chance for the foster siblings, both as their super-hero alter egos, and as normal kids, to prove their mettle and their loyalty to one another.
The mission of the film is to be cute, even cutesy, without becoming cloying. It succeeds. It also successfully succeeds in addressing some serious issues, such as bullying, abandonment, and terminally dysfunctional families. That trick comes in handy when it comes time to save the world (as it inevitably does) by raising the emotional stakes. Levi has the gift for playing a man-child without turning it into an ironic caricature. He has the gift of innocence that the role requires, and that cockiness that is more bravado than self-assurance. Also good are Angel and Grazer as kids with all of Levi’s bravado but also a poignance about the hand that life has dealt them. They are mature performances with satisfying nuance that enrich the film’s emotional landscape even before the apocalypse.
The lesser mission is to flood the screen with effects, and in this it also succeeds. From the flying books and a pen named Steve at the Rock of Eternity, to a battle for the world involving nods to Ray Harryhausen’s foray into Greek Myths, to a refreshingly revisionist take on unicorns (also featuring the least egregious product placement in a looooooooooooong time), the imagery is fanciful and, being ensconced in a film aimed at tweens and younger, the carnage is minimal.
Plus, Helen Mirren as a condescending god wielding a staff of doom. It’s, ahem, divine.
SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS is an excellent time at the movies for those in search of a fun film that is just a little more than fluff. If it inspires you to seek out JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, for a few more of Harryhausen’s masterpieces of monster-making, so much the better.