Shazam! Fury of the Gods–The best movie adaptation of DC Comics yet?

Review by C.J. Bunce

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is the kind of movie that makes you wish you could transport it back to fans of the comic book superhero in the 1940s and 1950s.  If they saw this movie compared to any other from the 21st century, I’m sure it they’d vote it as #1.  The single most important feature of a great superhero adaptation is bringing the heart of the characters from the comics page to the movie experience.  The first Shazam! nailed it.  But now that we’re past the origin story, the sequel is even better.  In Shazam! we met the Marvel Family, one of the most popular subjects in comic book history.  You’d think it might be difficult to translate it to the 2020s.  Director David F. Sandberg is the first director to faithfully adapt characters to the screen in back-to-back movies, and he did it by pulling in scenes and imagery from incarnations of the character both classic and recent.  Love Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come?  Shazam! Fury of the Gods is for you.  And it’s now streaming on the newly renamed Max streaming service.

The first movie featured monsters like you’d find in The Lord of the Rings.  The villain and monsters were scarier than a movie about a family of kids would normally be, and the first movie’s other faults were finding its tone and using Djimon Hounsou’s wizard and magic to its fullest.  It’s all repaired for the sequel, which brings in LOTR creators Weta FX to re-create the entire Greek mythology pantheon of beast characters (Cyclops!  Minotaur!).  Think Ray Harryhausen, but better.  And Hounsou gets his best role in his long line of superhero movies, a character who knows and uses magic and becomes an integral part of the story (at one point he’s part of a Billy dream, one of the best CG scenes of the movie).  The story and effects employ magic equal to that used in the Harry Potter movies, plus the one-two combo of history and the very origin of Shazam’s name–components of Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s creation more than eight decades ago.  That includes Steve, an invisible spirit who serves to both take dictation and teach the Marvel family about mythology.  DC Entertainment has never combined all these kinds of tropes into one movie before.

Whiz Comics superhero Billy Batson wasn’t a DC original, shuffled much later into the DC universe because of some decades-long legal tedium.  But the kid who suddenly becomes a superhero has the benefit of being written as the most powerful, so when he screws up he can screw up big.  The very thing the other Justice League stories have glossed over–all that carnage they leave behind in battle–makes sense here because we’re dealing with a kid trying out his new superpowers–and just dealing with everything teens deal with.  Superman and Batman had no excuse, but Billy has a good one.  So he’s part Spider-Man in addition to wielding the physical powers like Superman.

But it’s never just about Billy.  Every member of the Marvel family gets to be a hero, especially Billy’s adoptive mom and dad, played again beautifully and humorously by Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans.  This time the script even jokes about the fact DC can’t use the Captain Marvel name (despite this superhero being the original) and, even better, it pulls in the original Billy Batson actor, Shazam! TV series star Michael Gray, for a cameo, calling him just that.

The challenge with a movie featuring a family that then transforms into adult versions is giving both sets of actors adequate screen time.  The young version of Billy, played by Asher Angel, actually gets the least to do here because Levi needs to be that dangerous kid for the mystique to work, and does so again perfectly.  Mary is the only character played in both forms by Grace Caroline Currey (formerly Grace Fulton), and she leads the way as the brains of the family (it was a savvy choice to have her play both roles this time).  Young Faithe Herman’s Darla gets a key role in the film’s climax, the kind of epic scene that fans will revisit from here on.  Herman’s Darla is almost indistinguishable from her adult incarnation, thanks to Meagan Good’s versatility.  And both Ian Chen and Jovan Armand both get to get serious and funny as foster brothers Eugene and Pedro, played in supersuits by adult actors Ross Butler and D.J. Catrona.

But who is the biggest hero of the movie?  It’s Freddy again.  The coolest of the family as adults in supersuits is Freddy as Captain Everypower, played by Adam Brody.  But he’s upstaged again by young Jack Dylan Glazer, whose character and performance has all the great superhero stuff of Chris Evans’ weakling who dived onto a grenade to save the troop in Captain America: The First Avenger.  A better than usual subplot finds Freddy falling for new schoolmate Anne, played by Rachel Zegler (star of the West Side Story remake and forthcoming live action Snow White).  Zegler is a great addition to the franchise.

Then there are the villains.  You would expect an actress like Dame Helen Mirren to bring gravitas to anything she does.  No surprise, her powerful daughter of Atlas, Hespera, is among the best villains of any superhero movie to date.  And she’s joined by a perfectly loathsome and convincing sister god, played by Lucy Liu.  This duo is full of all the supervillainy you love, and more engaging and menacing than the likes of Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Gene Hackman in their supervillain roles.  Willing a teacher to walk off a roof is some pretty evil villainy, so the movie also shows it’s about the biggest of stakes early on.  But the dark nature of the villainy is actually toned down compared to the first Shazam! (that movie returns for one of three codas during the credits).  The only mark against the movie is a single bleeped line where one of the kids is about to drop an F bomb–it’s cringey and doesn’t fit the tone of the movie.

Screenwriter Henry Gayden is back, this time with Fast & Furious franchise writer Chris Morgan (bringing in a nice joke involving Helen Mirren, who is also in that franchise).  They have tapped into the secret of bringing everything together and being faithful to the source material–a great guide for future superhero moviemakers.  It has great pop songs’ like the Footloose song “I Need a Hero” and a stifled Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” and one of the most triumphant superhero soundtracks yet, by Christophe Beck (apparently no relation to Shazam’s creator, C.C. Beck).

Like the first movie, Shazam! Fury of the Gods has heart, it’s a great story about family, it ticks all the superhero movie boxes, including two of the best supervillains in any superhero movie, it’s faithful to the source material, and it has a great cast and story.  You can’t ask for more.

Unfortunately for fans of this kind of superhero rollercoaster ride, DC Comics is going with James Gunn going forward to lead the studio.  He did have a hit with the first Guardians of the Galaxy.  But do audiences really want more movie like The Suicide Squad?  One of the codas ties in his Peacemaker series, so fans can hold out some hope he may bring Levi back as Shazam.  Otherwise you can pretty much forget about little kids watching DC superhero movies from here on.  How difficult is it to understand how to make a great superhero movie?  Most critics don’t understand the genre, and you can’t rely on the box office to have any meaning anymore when we’re all waiting for the movie on streaming services.  If only DC Comics would continue with Zachary Levi’s superhero family to lead the future of the franchise, audiences would finally see DC Comics characters done right.

Yep, DC Entertainment–the movie guys–paid attention to DC Comics for the second time this decade–the actual writers and artists who built the character from the ground up–and delivered another brilliant superhero movie.  You will taste the rainbow.  Fun for the entire family and a welcome addition to the DC universe of movies that surpasses Warner Brothers’ decades of predecessor films, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is now streaming on Max.

Leave a Reply