One of the hardest things to do when crafting a cinematic sequel is to expand the first film’s world while still maintaining the delicate balance of elements that made the original film so successful. For a good example at how to do it wrong, look no further than last year’s disappointing Thor: Love And Thunder which was a follow-up to the much more tonally balanced Thor: Ragnarok. But Shazam: Fury Of The Gods is a closer example on how to keep what worked with the first while opening up the scope of the hero’s world in the new installment. That is not to say the film is a perfect example though, as it does have a couple of flaws that keep it from outdoing its predecessor.
It has been two years since Billy Batson has been given magical superpowers by the wizard Shazam, which he then shared with his foster brothers and sisters to defeat the evil Dr. Sivana. In that time, they have become the hometown superheroes for Philadelphia, even if they occasionally aren’t as graceful in their hero work as say, Superman. One such error, the breaking of the Wizard’s staff at the end of the first film, comes back t the haunt the group as it turns out that the staff was also responsible for keeping up a barrier that imprisoned the Greek gods on whom Billy and his siblings’ powers are derived from. But with that barrier now gone, the three surviving daughters of Atlas – Hespera, Kalypso and Anthea – have turned their eyes towards Earth and regaining the magic that they feel is theirs.
The first Shazam was essential a superhero version of Big, with teenager Billy, and eventually his foster siblings, changing into adults whenever they say the magic word to activate their superpowers. Shazam: Fury Of The Gods maintains the playful, fun tenor that the first film had. The kids all seem to enjoy having superpowers, even if they haven’t fully mastered them, or gotten around to picking good superhero code names for themselves, yet. And while they all seem to be getting along just as well or even better than they were at the end of the first film, tensions do still arise, with Billy’s brother Freddie wanting sometime to fly solo, so to speak, as a hero. It is a solid complication in their relationship and one that drives a number of story moments.
Director David F. Sandberg does once again a few elements of horror, which is to be expected from the filmmaker who brought us Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. As the film barrels into its third act, the Daughters of Atlas have unleashed a number of mythical creatures loose resulting in some of the fleeing Philadelphians meeting untimely and gruesome, though just off-screen, ends. While the fatal violence to these people does happen out of sight, the camera cuts away just late enough that there is no question as to their grisly fate, which may be a bit intense for younger audience members.
There are still two problems with the script that keep things from elevating this film to equal status with the first Shazam. Firstly, the relationship between the Daughters of Apollo lacks the depth that it could have. The three are not always in agreement on what their actions should be and the screenplay doesn’t give us enough background on each of them to help fill in their differences. Stronger characterizations of the three could have ultimately even served as a parallel to the ongoing disagreement between Billy and Freddy. And when you have these three characters being played by Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and relative newcomer Rachel Zegler, it feels like a lost opportunity. Secondly, the ending – which I will not spoil here – relies on a trope that is literally a deus ex machina in human form. While it was set up earlier in the film and there is conceivably a broader reason for doing it, this final story beat does leave one feeling as if the climax of the film just a few moments earlier has been cheapened somewhat.