Director – David F. Sandberg – 2023 – US – Cert. – 130m
Three Daughters of Atlas enter present day Philadelphia to repossess a staff which contains power that has been stolen from them; immature teenager recast as adult superhero Shazam! and his six superhero companions must stop them – out in UK cinemas on Friday, March 17th
Something of an oddity in the DC Comics canon, Shazam! concerns Philadelphia teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who inadvertently absorbs superpower energy which enables him to transform into the adult superhero Shazam! (Zachary Levi) by merely uttering the word “Shazam!” However, despite the adult physique, he still thinks like a teenager. Outside of superhero life, he is one of seven orphans who, since the end of the original Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019), have had the same thing happen to them. So, seven children, seven superheroes. And their two put-upon foster parents, Rosa and Victor Vásquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews).
To be honest, I could take or leave the title character (as played by teenager Angel and adult Levi) but the other kids are likeable enough – at least to the extent that their characters are fleshed out here… and some are fleshed out far more than others in the narrative. Weirdly, though, this franchise staple material is not the film’s real asset.
It starts off with two ancient Greek warriors entering a present day museum of ancient history to r. The staff constitutes the source of their power. They remove their helmets to reveal themselves as sisters Hespera (Helen Mirren, who effortlessly steals every scene she’s in with Shakespearian gravitas) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), break the case and take the staff then wreak havoc on security guards and innocent bystanders alike, turning them into sandstone figures apt to break into numerous piece should they fall.
Although these two are clearly the villains of the piece, there’s a sense in which they are simply trying to fulfil their destiny, with the power of the staff having originally been wielded by their late father Atlas before that power chanced to become vested in young Batson. Oh, and when in the previous film Shazam! broke the staff into two pieces, he opened a gateway between our world and that of the Gods, which has enabled the sisters to access present day Philadelphia and find the broken staff.
That turns out to be only half the story, though, as the script detours into teen high school territory to follow one of the orphans, the crippled Freddy Freeman (the likeable Jack Dylan Grazer) who manages being the target of school bullies by just shrugging it off. In a completely unbelievable production gaffe, a teacher in the school corridor stands around and watches bullies bend Freddy’s aluminium crutch into a right angle then proceeds to to absolutely nothing about it.
Moving swiftly on, Freddy falls for new student Ann (the winsome Rachel Zegler, fresh from playing the female lead in West Side Story, Steven Spielberg, 2021) unaware that she is in fact Anthea, younger sibling of Hespera and Kalypso, which allows for a romantic dynamic to play out throughout the rest of the film. Before long, he introduces his superhero alter-ego (Adam Brody) to impress her, and she reciprocates by revealing her power of causing environments to spin around at a rapid rate along and telling him that she is in fact 6 000 years old. And yet, the two of them do appear to have genuine feelings for one another, which puts this third sibling somewhat at odds with her two vengeful sisters. No one is expecting a teenage rom-com sub-plot, but why not if it works? (And, here, it does).
Thereafter, the film whizzes through serial special effects-laden set-pieces, with some effects more successful than others. The two sequences where the CG FX doesn’t quite feel real (as if the technicians weren’t quite given enough time to hone their work and get it all the way there) are the collapse of a suspension bridge heavily laden with gridlocked traffic and the planting of a golden apple into the ground causing roots to grow through some several city blocks breaking up roadway, climbing buildings and generally wrecking all physical infrastructure in sight. Both sequences are, however, beautifully put together and certainly hold the attention, so this seems like something of a minor carp.
A pit in the world of the Gods contains a monster, which turns out to be a pretty impressive CG FX-generated dragon, which in turn becomes Kalypso’s mount as she gets lots of screen time flying around the city wreaking havoc [although, curiously, effects shots of Lucy Liu atop the dragon, who appears commendably game for the whole onscreen gig, are mostly limited to her sitting atop a full sized head and neck mockup, which means that rather like Fay Wray in the lifeless, life-sized paw of the original King Kong (Merian C.Cooper, Ernest B.Shoedsack, effects by Willis O’Brien, 1933) being upstaged by the miniature, model-animated creature effects, Liu is constantly upstaged by the CG shots of the dragon].
Having enclosed central Philadelphia in an impenetrable, transparent dome and planted a tree via the aforementioned gold apple, the two sisters summon armies of mythological creatures to battle against the humans which must be fought by our seven heroes along with the conflicted Anthea and a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) with considerable knowledge of the staff. Although CG, the creatures appear to have been borrowed wholesale from the stop-frame, mythological creature filmography of Ray Harryhausen, with a cyclops (The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, 1958), harpies (Jason And The Argonauts, 1963) , a minotaur (Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger, 1977) and a chimera (which, incredibly, never featured in any of his movies). The dragon rides through the air as if galloping in much the same manner as Pegasus The Winged Horse in Harryhausen’s Clash Of The Titans (1981).
However, being a big budget, Studio film, it never achieves the excitement of a Harryhausen film when the hero(es) find themselves in contact for reasons of combat or otherwise with such creatures: here’s they’re just thrown into the mix as extras and apt to get lost in the multiplicity of special effects and mayhem, which is a great shame as so much more could be done with them in terms of drama and spectacle.
If the superhero premise is nothing special, the mythological angle is extremely well worked out on paper. The effects are mostly superb and the film benefits greatly from being seen on the best digital IMAX screen you can find, with a decent sound system, which is how it was screened to press (for the record, at London’s Cineworld IMAX Leicester Square, which cinema did the film proud). Perhaps more importantly, though, the casting of three extremely capable actresses as the three sisters pays off handsomely, giving the villains a dramatic weight all too rare in films like this.
As a DC comics film, I couldn’t care less about this; as a breathtaking slice of Greek mythology dumped via impressive CG FX into an otherwise predictable superhero film, it’s fantastic. Did I mention that the three female lead villains, especially Helen Mirren, are wonderful? You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Shazam!: Fury Of The Gods is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 17th.