Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Shazam! Fury of the Gods


Frankly, they would have had to screw this up really badly for me to lose my enthusiasm for the character as created by the first film in the series. Fortunately, they not only failed to screw it up, they found a very reasonable approach to extending the story and then they cast some new characters that just tell you, the film is going to work. I can't say it is perfection, but I can say I had a great time, and enjoyed the movie almost as much as the first film. "Fury of the Gods" turns out to be a blast and a worthy successor to Shazam!

In the original film, our young hero is struggling to find a family that he lost. The gut punch of his Mother's brush off was one of the darker moments in an otherwise sunny story about a kid who gets superpowers. Billy this time is having a different crisis with family, he is struggling to hold on to the newly acquired group that has become his family, and to paraphrase Princess Leia, " The more you tighten your grip... the more that will slip through your fingers." A family of heroes working together is great, but each foster brother and sister needs to be their own person, and Billy gets frustrated as he tries to keep everyone together and antagonizes Freddy, his foster brother and best friend, and alienates Mary, who earned admission to Cal Tech but has sacrificed a dream for the core group of heroes. There is still fun to be had as we are learning of these troubles. The opening rescue on the bridge is only halfway successful and the Lair in the Rock of Eternity gets explored with some funny moments. Eugene's quest to map all the doors that lead to and from the rock give us plenty to laugh at. One of the best reminders that we are dealing with children in the form of adult heroes, is the utilization of "Steve", the magic pen that records their words on parchment, but does so literally and as a result we get to be reminded that these are kids. When Helen Mirren's character, Hespera, reads the note out loud, it is a moment to relish.

Mirren and Lucy Liu as Kalypso, are the daughters of Atlas, one of the gods whose powers, the kids have been imbued with. Their desire to reclaim the powers and inflict punishment on the human race for taking the powers in the first place, becomes the driving force of the plot. It does get a bit convoluted when n additional McGuffin, "The Seed of Life" is introduced. It is relatively easy to follow the plot, but there are many permutations that result from this device. For example, the city of Philadelphia, gets encased in an impenetrable dome,  and a plethora of monsters from mythology get released on the town. One of the things I liked is that the production design between the two films remains consistent when the monsters are a part of the story. Yes, it is a CGI sellout in the last part of the film, but at least it is interesting. Oh, and Unicorns are terrifying not cute. The biggest laugh I had in the film comes when a product placement slogan gets used in a non-PG form by youngest sister Darla.

For the most part, the film is family friendly. The bad guys are easy to identify, the monsters are scary but the violence is not particularly explicit, and there are some fun family themes that run through the movie. When the foster parents get in on the action, there are also some heartwarming moments, including one that addresses Billy's big fear about his new family, that he will lose them when he ages out of the system. However, there are some dark moments that might caution families a little bit to make sure their kids are prepared for some bad things that happen. A new character, who is supportive, friendly and easy for us to like by the way he connects with Freddy, is dispatched in an unpleasant manner and the tone seems at odds with the rest of the film. The climax of the film has a few moments of remorse and sadness, that you will find in a lot of films. We have an apparent loss that ultimately gets repaired, but for a few moments it feels more real than some of those Disney fake outs. 

Zach Levi is terrific as Shazam!, the hero at the center of the story. Asher Angel, who plays Billy, the kid version of the main hero, is appropriately angsty, but as he has gotten older, his immaturity will be a harder sell. Jack Dylan Green, who is Freddy, has to carry a pretty big emotional load for the film and he is clearly capable of doing so. I also thought that Rachel Zegler as Anne, was pretty effective as a love interest and as a fulcrum in the fight with Hespera and Kalypso. Djimon Hounsou returns as the wizard who gave the powers to Billy in the first place, and his interactions with Freddy during their time imprisoned by the sisters, was a lot of fun. To be honest, everyone here seems to know what this movie is and how to play their parts. The director David Sandberg, and the writing team, stick to the goal of the first film, let's have fun with this and worry about how it all fits in with the DC Universe, some other time. We do get a couple of references to the world of heroes and meta humans, but they are mostly just for fun rather than trying to build a bigger story.

I think superhero/comic book burnout is a real thing. There is a point at which, the audience will stop caring about the overarching end of the world scenarios that keep coming up. If comic book movies are going to get through this period, it will be because of films like this and "Guardians of the Galaxy", where the fun and laughter are at least as important as the plot, and are more important that the latest villain. I was happy to see a range of people in the audience for the show I went to. There were teens, families and older couples. A film that can cross a lot of sub groups and bring them together for two hours of fun in the dark, together, has got to have something going for it. 

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