Shazam! Fury of the Gods
In a not wholly dissimilar way to Marvel, DC is currently less interesting for its cinematic output than the events that must be going on behind the scenes to create that output. With the MCU, the extensive self-demolition that has resulted from the formerly financially infallible series’ wokification has been something to behold. The DCEU is somewhat different, hitherto erratic at best with occasional pay dirt seemingly by luck rather than skill or smarts, yet having an emphatic line drawn under all of it, give or take, following the appointment of the post-dead James Gunn as joint CEO of DC Studios. Which means, even if Shazam! Fury of the Gods hadn’t bombed massively, the character likely wasn’t going to have much of a future anyway.
Anthea: I’m over 6,000 years old.
Of course, the real Gunn would have probably found the material a godsend, yielding a trove of paedo jokes from the concept of an adolescent who becomes a superhero – give or take – when reconvened into an adult’s body. That was, after all, how Gunn publicly came a cropper (which was, it would seem, the tip of the iceberg).
Shazam’s Billy Batson – created in 1939 – follows in the lineage of Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s 1892 Vice Versa (without the versa), which has produced its own movie versions (foremost being Freak Friday, itself based on a 1972 body-swap novel). However, the nearest antecedent is probably Big, a more overtly creepy-in-insinuations movie that was considered by the now-deceased Spielberg as a directing vehicle and starred the now-deceased Tom Hanks (it was also referenced in the first Shazam!)
This rather goes to the point of the material; if one can get past the less seemly undercurrents of the concept, it’s still, at best, a one-joke – or one-movie – premise. I don’t know how Shazam manages as an ongoing comic, but I have to wonder how many kids want a kid as their choice of superhero rather than an actual superhero? There’s surely limited mileage there, particularly if the kid superhero has to remain a rather inept kid each time out, one who somehow manages to pull it all together in the last furlong (there’s also the small detail that, in the space of two movies, Billy is teetering on the brink of adulthood).
Which is to say, it’s easy enough, on an extended gag level, to appreciate why the first Shazam! was a hit (ish). And it’s easy also to appreciate why no one was much interested in seeing the same thing again. This sequel must contend with a whole mob of kids invested with Shazam powers, but lest you thought that would wholly dilute the brand – I certainly did – they’re all required to lose them in the final act so Billy can save the day after having been entirely rubbish at every preceding turn.
Indeed, the “Philly Fiascos” moniker is a comedy-first one that suggests none of them have learnt anything in the years since, and no one of bona-fide superheroic stature has shown any impulse to teach them either (despite, as the Wonder Woman cameo illustrates, this being definably part of the DCEU). Added to which, Billy is no longer just a kid (“You turn 18 in five months”), so at the point where Spider-Man was having to show some mettle.
Consequently, there’s some effective enough goofy humour here, but more still where the joke has simply worn thin. Is Billy just young, or is he a moron? Because the plot suggests more frequently – until the final act – that he’s the latter. No wonder Shazam (the Djimon Honsou version) regrets imbuing him with powers… until he decides, sentimentally, that he was actually right.
Shazam/Billy Batson: I’ve seen the Fast & Furious movies, lady.
The sequel’s premise, a non-DC lore one whereby the wizard’s staff contains powers taken from the realm of the gods (the Titans) and using it to extract the recipients’ Shazam-ness can facilitate restoring the realm, is mildly coherent and serviceable. The Titans themselves aren’t the most formidable-seeming trio, but then neither are their opponents. You watch any Hollywood movie now, and you wonder – or should wonder – who’s out for the count, replaced by an avatar just going through the motions. In this case, prospective examples include Lucy Liu, of the hermaphrodite-friendly (first) big-screen Charlie’s Angels, and Helen Mirren, who has undergone a facelift of Brazil proportions that certainly gives one pause as to whether that’s the original Helen under there anymore. Third in the line-up is Rachel Zegler, of the ’Berg’s redundant West Side Story remake. She’s the nice Titan’s daughter.
Kalypso: I forgot how easily they burst. Like grapes.
There are occasions here where the riffs work reasonably well – the letter to Mirren’s Hespera, in which sentient pen Steve has included everything dictated (“What is this Gatorade? Is it a weapon?”) – and Hounsou, in particular, seizes the chance to add an arch layer to his portentous wizard when teamed with Jack Dylan Grazer’s Billy.
Most of the extended “fam” fail to make much impression, however. There’s some progressive tick boxing with Pedro (Jovan Armand) outing himself that smacks of “We’ve done our bit there so no one can criticise us and we can move on”. Darla converting scary unicorns to friendly ones with the lure of Skittles, the closest thing Earth has to ambrosia, is vaguely amusing. But along this line, horror guy David F Sandberg embraces the opportunity to emphasise a contrarily harsh undertone to all that transpires. The superhero kids’ mistakes unequivocally lead to the deaths of many innocents. When the gods’ mythical creatures begin appearing on Earth, they’re slaying Philly residents left, right and centre. It’s the kind of “teen irresponsibility yields mayhem” that probably hasn’t been seen since Gremlins.
Shazam: I cast a barrier to prevent your kind from entering the human realm. The only way the barrier could be removed is if…
Kalypso (with staff): Someone broke this!
One might read a reflection of actual paradigms into the set up. If, for example, we posit the Titans, who were prevented from entering the human realm, as stand-ins for Anunnaki, the movie’s barrier would become the Ice Wall. Indeed, we later see a dome – a representation of the firmament – that seals in Philadelphia (the world). A wood dragon, we are told “emanates fear from every pore of its body”; this doesn’t sound that far from the effect Draco have when seen by humans, per Donald Marshall’s account. All of this may tend towards random association, of course, given that the DCEU seems nothing if not random in design.
John Economos: Why are you so obsessed with Wonder Woman, dude?
Which brings us back round to what’s going on in the DCEU. We’ve had a completed, super-woke Batgirl movie consigned very publicly to the dustbin. White Hat Dwayne Johnson had Black Adam released (and voiced the hero hound in DC League of Super-Pets) as if he’d been anointed the new guiding force for DC, but his investiture promptly floundered on indifference. Gunn promptly comes in, announced as the busiest of deceased filmmakers bar Guy Ritchie. What’s the method there? To destroy DC/WB, à la Disney and MCU/Star Wars? Is it the case that Gal Gdot and Jason Momoa – we know Ben Affleck isn’t – are no longer mortally viable, and this represents a means of wiping the slate? On the face of it, Gunn is poison, but one might have said the same of Elon, before his initial incarnation was nixed, and he was reduxed.
Kalypso: Let’s see how you like being sealed off in a dying world.
As far as Shazam! is concerned, though, there’s little confusion. The sequel was a mighty bomb, and while there are suggestions Billy Batson might still appear in a Justice Society movie, it’s safe to say there’s no further appetite for the character as a standalone. Set that against the multiverse-savvy The Flash movie, projected to be an ultimate crowd-pleaser – despite starring the pronoun-prurient, publicity-department’s nightmare Ezra Miller – and it’s probably best simply to admit defeat in ascribing clear motives to the strings being pulled in Hollywood right now. Tinseltown is so thoroughly and inherently sullied, it may be that it has been ascribed the status of a dying world that needs sealing off from the rest of us. We shall see.