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‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’

by KEITH GARLINGTON Special to the Democrat -Gazette | March 24, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Nonavengers assemble: Super Hero Eugene (Ross Butler), Super Hero Freddy (Adam Brody), Super Hero Mary (Grace Caroline Currey), Shazam (Zachary Levi), Super Hero Darla (Meagan Good) and Super Hero Pedro (D.J. Cotrona) wonder what it’s all about in the DC extended universe film “Shazam! Fury of the Gods!”

The unfortunate demise of Zack Snyder's DC superhero universe has made it hard to know what to expect from forthcoming hold-over movies such as "The Flash," "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" and the just released "Shazam! Fury of the Gods." New DC head James Gunn has spoken highly of all three films and has vaguely indicated that they each have roles to play in what his plans are going forward. Whether that's true or just studio speak remains to be seen.

I was a big fan of Snyder's vision. Where Kevin Feige's MCU sought to stress the humanity of its heroes, Snyder looked at humanity through the prism of his god-like characters. It may sound like a small detail, but it gave the two universes a much-needed contrast. Interestingly, 2019's "Shazam!" was the most MCU-like DC movie to come during Snyder's tenure. It made money and received good reviews. But it was a little too silly and lighthearted for my taste.

Regardless of my thoughts of its tone, "Shazam!" was well directed by David F. Sandberg and it had the pitch-perfect star in Zachary Levi. Both return in the sequel "Shazam! Fury of the Gods," a movie that began production before the covid-19 pandemic and prior to the dissolution of the Snyder-led DC extended universe. Now several delays later and with a cloud of uncertainty over the character's future under James Gunn looming, the film is finally getting its release.

Screenwriter Henry Gayden also returns from the first film, this time helped with the script by Chris "Fast & Furious" Morgan. As before, their story is infused with the same whimsical brand of humor although this time it's dialed back just a bit. That may disappoint some, but for me it was a plus. Interestingly, their two big antagonists, the Daughters of Atlas, are plucked straight from Greek mythology yet don't actually appear in DC Comics. But Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) turn out to be a fun and fairly menacing duo.

Once again the movie follows the spirited teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who is transformed into a super-powered adult (played by Levi) whenever he yells the magically charged word "SHAZAM!" That's when he's instantly imbued with "the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury."

Despite getting more comfortable with his powers, Billy still finds it difficult juggling life as a 17-year-old living with his foster parents (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) and being a superhero to his hometown Philadelphia. Even more challenging is his well-meaning yet sometimes overbearing impulse to lead and protect his super empowered foster siblings. It's especially frustrating to his foster brother Freddy (a delightful Jack Dylan Grazer) and his foster sister Mary (Grace Caroline Currey).

Sandberg kicks things off with two terrific introduction scenes, the first taking place at a museum in Athens, Greece. Two people decked out in Ancient Greek armor enter the crowded museum like cosplayers at a convention. But they quickly reveal themselves to be the Daughters of Atlas, and they've come to reclaim a broken staff that's said to be crafted from the mystical Tree of Life. They believe it to be rightfully theirs, and once they seize the two pieces, they let out some of their anger on the museum-going innocents -- a grim sign of things to come.

Over in Philadelphia, Billy and his super-family race to help the citizens trapped on the collapsing Ben Franklin Bridge. They get everyone to safety but don't exactly save the bridge, prompting the local newspapers to label them the "Philly Fiascos." Back at home, Billy is worried about aging out of the foster system and losing another family. Meanwhile Freddy hits it off with a new girl at school named Anthea (Rachel Zegler). Just some of the human touches that play a big part in the movie, much as they did in the first film.

Of course everything leads to the Daughters of Atlas coming to Philly to duke it out with Billy and his family. The buildup to the big climax is filled with giddy talk of magic and mythology, but Sandberg is smart enough not to take things too seriously. Much of it comes from Djimon Hounsou who returns as the master wizard still regretting choosing Billy as his champion. His story here doesn't make much sense, but Hounsou's sure having a great time. Same with Mirren and Liu who are given the bare minimum in terms of backstory, but squeeze a lot of fun out of their roles.

With the exception of a few underwritten characters, some occasional convolution, and a little late movie cringe, "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" was an unexpected treat and a surprising step up from the first film. It's unashamedly silly, but it has the heart and humor fans will be looking for. There's some cool creature designs, big action, and several wild set pieces. Yet underneath the layers of expensive digital effects is a story of friendship, family and sacrifice. And it's all once again carried by Zachary Levi, who may never suit up as Shazam again, but he has been good when he has.

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