movie reviews

​​​​’Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ review: Way better than it should be

Ryan Oquiza

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​​​​’Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ review: Way better than it should be
'It might be the most fun I’ve had with a superhero film for half the budget'

In the first Shazam film, Billy Batson, a 14-year-old boy who is unexpectedly granted superhero powers by a magical wizard, is faced with an enormous challenge. No, it isn’t Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, nor is it the ancient demonic creatures symbolizing the seven deadly sins. It’s his longing to find his biological mother and his struggle to fit in as an orphan.

The zenith of the DC Universe’s very short list of strong emotional moments remains to be the scene where Billy finally finds his mother in a rundown apartment complex. In this understated and simple scene, Billy confronts the stark reality that shatters his idealized image of his mother. As it turns out, his mother intentionally didn’t try to find him after Billy was lost as a child, the motivation being that she was overwhelmed as a young single parent.

It’s a heart-wrenching scene that feels real, not manufactured – a feat that is so rare in superhero films in the post-MCU boom. These kinds of authentic moments are what low-budget films like Shazam lean on in order to compete with bigger and more extravagant productions. The original cost only $85 million to make while this one gets the bigger budget sequel treatment with $100 million (the critically-panned Black Adam cost $260 million to make in comparison, which is mind-boggling to me).

So the question in the back of my mind watching this film is not about whether there’ll be more bombastic action set-pieces or computer-generated monsters wandering around the streets of Philadelphia. It’s whether or not this new installment will retain the spirit that made its predecessor a cut above the rest. Luckily, my concerns were quickly dissolved; sometimes, I even wonder why they were even there in the first place. Because in all honesty, there was no reason for this film to be bad despite what the poor marketing and out-of-context clips being spread on Twitter might tell you. It boasts the same director, the same writer, the same actors, and consequently, it also contains the same heart.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods might be the most fun I’ve had with a superhero film for half the budget. It didn’t need $200 million dollars to feel competently made, it shines with its constraints and has a keen sense of practicality. Director David Sandberg (Lights Out, Shazam) does not cut corners with his endless creativity and Henry Gayden returns to write a script that is obnoxiously childish, which is exactly why it works.

As Billy Batson (Asher Angel), now almost 18 years old, wrestles with new fears such as abandonment issues and impostor syndrome, we see a glimpse of his internal struggles. He’s afraid of being moved out of the foster system after being seen as too old, he’s also clearly holding on to his superhero alter ego (played comically by Zachary Levi) and the Shazam family that was created from the ending of the first film as a way to cope.

This time, Billy isn’t alone in sharing valuable superhero screen-time in the film. Much focus is also given to Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer/Adam Brody) who develops a blossoming romance with high school newcomer Anne (Rachel Zegler). Meanwhile, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) is trying to balance her college and forthcoming professional career with her superhero duties, Eugene (Ian Chen/Ross Butler) is busy exploring and marking Harry Potter-like doors, Pedro (Jovan Armand/D.J. Cotrona) comes to terms with his identity, and Darla (Faithe Herman/Meagan Good) remains effortlessly funny.

Though some characters gain more traction than others, it’s fascinating to see the effort given to treat each character as significant to the plot, not just mere afterthoughts. In lesser films, the number of characters would’ve been too overwhelming, leading to some blatant narrative compromises. In here, the plot cleverly wriggles its way into arcs that either lead to poignant revelations at best, and some really good punchlines at worst. The film recognizes that it isn’t too deep and that having a family of foster kids already does the writing itself.

Speaking of writing, there are a tremendous amount of jokes that have high hit rates here. The trailers, while definitely mediocre, actually do the film justice by virtue of withholding the best bits. There’s a scene involving an unexpected face on top of a body and another involving a message sent to the villains that plays out like a Google Docs file edited by children who forgot to send in their final draft. I don’t usually like highlighting humor as one of the primary reasons to watch a film, but this one is undeniably flat-out hilarious.

The reason for this is that it’s aware of its tone right from the start and does not falter or doubt itself for one moment. The reason another superhero film earlier this year failed at its humor and levity is because it wasn’t sure what kind of film it was (was Quantumania a comedy, a children’s movie, an Avengers-level film, or something else?). At least in Shazam, everyone was on the same page, making each joke land and each serious moment bearing greater weight because of its contrast to everything that came before it.

The weakest link of this film, like the first one, is its villains. Dame Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu play Hespera and Kalypso respectively, each with a conniving sobriety to them that can be a little bit redundant. It’s only when their disagreements reveal themselves that you actually get a sense of their personalities. Liu and Mirren, while serviceable in their roles, could’ve done more if not for their motivations, which are literally ripped out of earlier (bad) DCEU films.

In fairness, the austere demeanor of the villains feel intentional because having children face up against stern adults is a guaranteed recipe for comedic gold, and there’s plenty of that to go here. Funnily enough, Black Adam actually fills that serious villain role to the teeth, his brooding and spartan behavior being the complete opposite of the frenetic and impish energy of the Shazam family. It’s a shame the Rock had to pit himself against Superman first instead of aligning himself with what was already there.

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This oddball dynamic can also be seen in the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and Freddy’s pairing, which surprised me due to their unexpected chemistry. It was so good that I often forgot that the film was centered around Billy Batson, not Freddy Freeman, who steals every scene he’s in, eventually winning you over with his inability to shut up. He’s like Dustin from Stranger Things if he were bestowed with superpowers and couldn’t pass up at the first opportunity to get the girl.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods goes to bold places that you actually buy for a second, which is a good thing because superhero films can feel formulaic and you’re just waiting for third act battles to end in such a way and then you’re already wondering what place you’ll eat at after you leave the theater. But for a brief moment in the final act, you buy the weight of what transpires because it makes sense for what the film had been building up. And in superhero films these days? It’s refreshing to get some decent character arcs. –

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is now showing in Philippine cinemas nationwide.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.