Friday, March 31, 2023

Atlas shrugged


Directed by David Sandberg
Written by Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan

Spoilers: moderate

I perceive that out of the last five or so superhero film reviews, I've taken a certain apologetic tack with most of themand only most because I actually enjoyed, of all things, League of Super-Pets, and didn't need to be apologetic about any negativitybut I've used something like the same opening paragraph for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Black Panther: Wakanda ForeverThor: Love and Thunder, and this one's own predecessor in its slated-to-be-discontinued-Crisis-style DCEU, Black Adam.  (Actually, looking back, Love and Thunder annoyed me enough that I just started trashing it immediately.)  I suppose this indicates where I am as regards the genre, inasmuch as I like it, and I'll always treat each individual movie (get a load of this out-of-touch shit) as an individual fucking movie, but I'm preparing for the time when our superheroes go away.  Which will never totally happenthey don't make musicals or disaster movies anymore, but, you know, they occasionally dobut the genre does seem to be in the first (maybe second) stage of collapsing as the cinema-consuming mega-phenomenon we've lived with since around 2008.  It's something we knew would eventually happen, though somehow it never seemed like it would, and I don't think this will work out well: it would take a pretty stupid film dweeb to think these are going to be replaced by some grand flowering of original, adult-oriented art, and it's hard to see what replaces them at all, as far as the theatrical industrial ecosystem goes; meanwhile, I expect when it dies it'll die nearly as messily on the production side.  For it did, in fact, consume cinema, and when you slay the beast, you don't cut open its stomach expecting to find what it's already eaten in any kind of good shape.

But to take it back to this individual movie, it was hard not to feel bad for Shazam! Fury of the Gods by itself.  Clearly, I speak only for me: for others it's obviously easier to mock it and everything around it, star Zachary Levi's sour grapes particularly.  Personally, however, I did feel bad for it, and for well over an hour of its not-even-that-egregious 130-minute runtime, feeling bad felt justified, because I was digging it pretty much completely.  Yet at some point-it is no later than the bona fide Skittles commercial that plays twice during this film's third act, but is likely a bit earliermy feeling that it had gotten an unfair shake began to fade.  I don't think it's really bad, but it does have one of the more tedious final thirds in a genre infamous for tedious final thirds, the kind of final third where you start re-cutting it in real time while you're watching it, asking things like "why are there forty shots used to communicate this plot beat when the one with Levi's timorously-smug smile has already communicated everything important about it already?", and a little later, "given that this is bullshit that even you won't bother pretending involves any real stakes, could you please stop going through the robotic motions of pretending, and just get to the lame, obvious joke to button it up?"

But I guess that's just 95% of all superhero cinema.  For a long while, Fury of the Gods is the good version of that, and good at precisely the things I was worried about any sequel to 2019's Shazam! being bad at, given that Shazam! was very adept at a lot of things, such as being a throwback 90s-style superhero film that was a refreshing change of pace from the 2010s' superhero mainstream, but left any sequel with the burden of basically needing to make a movie about a whole team when Billy Batson (Asher Angel) awarded a share of his myth-based superpowers not only to the two traditional members of his Marvel Family*, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), but to all the other orphans in his group home, rounding out the group with Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), and Darla (Faithe Herman).  Fury of the Gods, however, kicks off in earnest by proving that it can handle this, presenting the Marvels (I'm gonna call 'em that) in a "save a cat from a tree"-style setpiece that feels like returning director David Sandberg and his screenwriters still haven't seen any other superhero movie since the last Raimi Spider-Manand I mean this in a very complimentary way.  Given the super-task of saving the drivers on a collapsing bridge, they all get their things to do, all fairly interesting, all fairly humorous, all relating more-or-less to their personality such as they have one, and all set to a nice pop song backdrop ("Holding Out For a Hero"), that fits the sequence like a glove, half-earnest, half-joke, all-cringe-but-in-a-fun-way and resolutely toe-tapping whether you like it or not (it's Jim Steinman); and then it concludes on a very, very nice editing gag that reminds us that they're not actually very good at being superheroes, because they're barely good at being teens.

But before this, our plot's already been set in motion, when we meet two of our villains, Hespera (Helen Mirren, completing the career arc I guess she began with Excalibur) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), smashing up a museum in Greece, along with its patrons.  Their object is the broken staff that figured so prominently in the last movie, previously belonging to (in chain of title) Billy, Dr. Sivana (not in this movie), and the wizard who first gave Billy his powers (Djimon Honsou, definitely in this movie and afforded a surprisingly large part, given that the last thing he did in the last movie was die).  There's no reason you should recognize both of our villains' namesthe names they chose are not entirely standard, and they're the obvious result of scanning Wikipedia to find the ones that sounded the coolestbut that first one, anyway, indicates we're dealing with the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas, and they usually come in three.  (They are not usually arrayed in the form of a maiden, mother, and crone, and why Fury of the Gods does this anyway suggests that either someone wanted to do something Neil Gaimany with the triple goddess and didn't realize this silly movie wasn't going to support that, or Neil Gaiman's interpretation** of the triple goddess myth has been so overwhelmingly influential that people have legitimately forgotten that his identification of the various feminine trinities with one another is only a gloss.)  Well, regardless, that's the cue for "Ann" (Rachel Zegler) to just happen to run into Freddy as "the new kid at school," and leverage his tender horny feelings to put her in touch with the superheroes that he's "met," namely his buff adult demigod alter ego (Adam Brody).  And away we go, as the HesperidesHespera, Kalypso, and Antheiaexecute a diabolical plan to steal back the divine magic the wizard and his colleagues seized from the gods millennia ago, which is a fascinating little piece of lore-building in a film that mostly does pretty well with that.

This brings us up maybe as far as the hour mark, and if that doesn't seem like a tremendous amount of plot to get us there, that's not necessarily a complaint as of yet.  Yes, there are definite problems already: for instance, the Hesperides (traditionally the goddesses of, like, just the freaking sunset) have powers that are downright obnoxiously vagueAntheia may be a teleporter or space-bender, or maybe she just casts illusions, but ultimately all we can say for sure is that the VFX artists who worked on her powers watched Doctor Strange and Inception; Hespera gets power over "the elements" which in theory makes her effectively omnipotent yet in practice only means "occasional telekinesis"but while it's pretty damned far from commendable, the "shit, I dunno, it's magic?" approach that Fury of Gods takes works better in this specific context than it would in just about any other.  More subtly but more aggravatingly, then, the Hesperides' plan doesn't quite seem to logically connect to itselfpossibly the outcome of the three sisters working together without any agreed-upon end goal and increasingly at cross-purposes, something that the film absolutely does not have the space to deal with gracefully, because it doesn't have the space to give them personalities or anything beyond the haziest possible dynamicand there is the related matter of Mirren and Liu not ever really being given leave to "act" in a meaningful sense, while Zegler, given some opportunities, nevertheless appears to decide on a line-by-line basis whether she actually will.  I'll also point out that there's something almost admirable about the laziness of this film's naked assertion that, in fact, Honsou's wizard didn't die.

Above all, there's something that feels unwholesome about the ratio of screentime between Billy Batson and his burly superheroic counterpart, and this is even a fair criticism to make about the larger part of the whole cast, so that it's frankly rude of me to have not credited their adult performers already.  (Besides Levi and Brody, it's Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, and Meagan Goode; Currey plays both versions of Mary.)  But if you told me that the lead of Shazam!Billy Batson properly-speaking, as played by Angelwould be in the sequel to Shazam! for not more than one hundred twenty seconds, I'd have assumed you must have been exaggerating, though I promise I'm not.  If anything, I'm overestimating it to make sure I'm not exaggerating.  And this does surrender probably the most rewarding thing about Shazam!, namely the invisible synergy between Angel and Levi's performances that treated being a superhero as basically a cure for Billy's trauma and depression.  More mechanically, while Levi is still perfectly sound at doing "awkward, bumbling Billy in the body of a goofily-costumed god," without Angel around to anchor the character into something concrete and comprehensible it inevitably starts to veer into shtick, which isn't helped by some of the screenplay's material that plays this up more than even his actual age of 17 requiresnotably a "we haven't come up with superhero codenames yet" runner that's best-appreciated as airless metacommentary and isn't funny on that level, either.  It winds up like those latter issues of Miracleman where Miracleman realizes Mike Moran's basically superfluous, but only accidentally.  I assume it's probably more just how the plot shook out than any malign conspiracy, but they appear to favor Grazer.  That's not unreasonable, but Freddy gets a lot more screentime as himself than Billy does.

But none of these (except "isn't this about teens with superpowers, not 40 year old men pretending to be teens with superpowers?") are really crucial problems.  It just means it's not quite as good a movie as Shazam!, and there's no reason it can't survive that, especially since in all the other essentials it's offering up more of the same good stuff as the first film, with much the same larky hang-out vibe attending our heroes, whether they be goofing off in their rad cosmic clubhouse, fighting supervillains, or contemplating relationships with an age gap of 6000 years.  It's successful enough with this that I had occasion to wonder why this glibness is distinct from, say, Marvel glibness, and besides just being plain funnier than the MCU's usual non-jokes, the observational quips here are more in line with teens taking on a pose of unseriousness that fractures into overwrought melodrama very easily, rather than an unseriousness that's a fundamental principle of the script itself.  Plus there's some lines and couplets that I got a real kick out of in ways I'm not sure superhero dialogue has impressed itself upon me in a good long while.  ("We have to save her!  She said I was sweet!", which is a good line because it's not read unseriously.)

And at least during this phase of the film, Sandberg's doing a splendid job of pacing it, so that the hang-out doesn't feel completely static, and that's before we consider the way he springs out of the corners with the occasional reminder that his roots are in horror, so that the introduction of the Hesperides is pretty much perfect kid's horror (I've seen complaints it's too scary for family audiences which means it's exactly scary enough), and it's probably the most salient reason to see this in a theater while that's still possible, since while the other Hesperides have pretty lousily-defined power-sets, Kalypso doesn't, she controls minds with contagious whispers, and the sound design that attends this is creepy in ways that my own miserly sound set-up at home surely would not have brought across.  This same skillset has equal application for the 80s fantasy energy he's frequently tapping, too, so that from time to time Sandberg manages to come up with a visual, or present an idea, that has a sense of wonder attached to ita non-trivial thing indeed for a superhero film in 2023, which have become shockingly jaded about their own surreality even when "weird" is the explicit goal.

And then it's like the brakes get put on when Sandberg should be hitting the gas, and it just sort of gets dragged out into infinity.  It winds up muting the littler pleasures of the film, like the Italofantasy complexion of the Hesperides' dragon, and magnifying greatly the other little problems, like Sandberg's surprisingly primitive idea of cross-cutting, though I'm not sure he has any idea of cross-cutting, given that there's more than one scene where it feels like time must have stood still in the adjacent scene so that the action can play out the way it does in this one, and that's something most action movies cheat on but never something you should actually notice.  And finally Sandberg faceplants into some actual dire shit, like the "Skittles commercial" I mentioned up top.  The desire to give everybody something to do becomes a profound weakness in these circumstances (and that clunking cross-cutting obviously doesn't help), but this is particularly special, as I've rarely seen product placement more nauseatingly blatant than this Skittles spot in the middle of the third act of Fury of the Gods where, besides a little kid being tasked with shouting the product slogan at a unicorntwiceis filmed in every aspect exactly like it's already the TV commercial version of itself.

But I did say it's never overridingly terrible, and I'll stick by that, as the good parts outweigh the bad.  It's unfortunate that the bad is concentrated all in the end and so that's the impression you're left with.  This is especially true if you stick around for the mid-credits scene, which is where the shtick finally crossed some threshold for me and I audibly told Levi to shut his piehole, and if there's a post-credits scene to advertise yet another project that won't ever exist, I'm afraid I didn't see it.  Even so, at least this isn't one of those superhero film 6/10s where I'm already regretting the score in the moment of giving it, because it fucks up my calibration for the rest of the yearlooking at you, Quantumania.  No, this one really is more-or-less fine.

Score: 6/10

*Not called that here for obvious reasons, but if I lost you, you have Google.
**Well, Neil Gaiman's modern repopularization, germane particularly because Sandman is in quasi-continuity with DC superhero books and it was naturally highly influential upon them.  But it's not like the ancient Greeks themselves didn't notice their own triple-chick trope, and play with it in much the same manner.


  1. I still need to see this. I enjoyed the first one a lot, but the dominance of the super annoying in reality and on-screen Zachary Levi over Asher Angel in terms of screen time does not bode well for my enjoyment. It's like Shazam is a totally different person rather than a Big-ed Billy Batson. Which is not at all how it should be. I certainly won't be upset if Levi is one of the many changes in Gunn's new DC media plans. I notice you didn't mention the gorgeous Grace Caroline Currey at all. Is that a good or bad thing? I would absolutely love to see a movie based on the recent "The New Champion of Shazam" (read it if you haven't!) with her as the lead if she's good in the role. I absolutely adore the character of Mary Marvel and would love to see her get the spotlight. It would also sideline Levi and allow the other non-super powered kids in the family to have some additional screentime. I think there is a ton of potential in the characters, but not with Levi as the face of the franchise. There is a reason Captain Marvel out-sold Superman for years, after all.

    1. Now, I mentioned Currey, inasmuch as she's in it. She's not a major factor, or at least no more than the rest of the secondaries--she's very "the other four" in this story, which may honestly be a Freddy Freeman story first. I expect this is the inevitable outcome of turning Mary Batson into an elder foster sibling and then giving six people powers--she's going to wind up becoming one of the crowd, and this is perhaps not ideal.

      I don't mind Levi (as a performer, anyway), but whatever the original plans were, that mid-credits suggests they were insane. "Captain Marvel goes to work for the CIA" kind of nuts. (I just realized why they've been doing this, with Black Adam and the JSA: it's that somebody earnestly believes that Amanda Waller, especially as has been portrayed in the DCEU, is functionally the same thing as Nick Fury, which is a little flabbergasting.) Now if he went to go work for the UN? Well... though I'm not sure I actually want them to try their hand at Justice League International.

    2. Oh, and this is not a legitimate criticism, of course, but they promised Mr. Mind.

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    4. Yeah. The abandoned Mr. Mind tease, the lack of Black Adam, the disappearance of all Sivanas... it doesn't feel like Shazam really. The whole "JSA works for the CIA" concept is so, so damn dumb. I mean, they retired and resigned because they refused to unmask for the government let alone working for them. Ugh. I really hope it is one of the things that gets left behind. The fact that those are Gunn characters showing up though doesn't make me overly hopeful. I just want my Mary Marvel movie, dang it! At least she's getting more page time in the comics these days.

  2. @Hunter Allen: When you are implicitly promised The Monster Society of Evil and get the Daughters of Atlas, even when two of those Daughters are played by Dame Helen Mirren and THE Lucy Liu you have more than a little right to be PEEVED.

    Protest, my good fellow, Protest!

  3. Concerning the film itself, one can only agree that it needed serious pruning at some points (‘Superheroes as Family Business’ makes a far better hook for a TV series than a film franchise, at least where the Marvel Family are concerned, since there’s far more room for everyone to get their fair share of attention), but I found the film genuinely entertaining throughout.

    I definately agree that we needed a better Angel/Levy ratio - the latter’s schtik is amusing, but Best enjoyed in moderation.

    1. I'm sympathetic to the idea that the more action-oriented a Captain Marvel story is, the less opportunity there'll be for Billy Batson to have an important role in it--I'm not incensed, for example, about Justice League stories where Capt. Marvel is the only version of the character on the page, because it's not like we see a lot of, e.g., Clark Kent shoeleather reportage in those, either--but in a story where Billy's the star it's slightly weird that Billy doesn't quite get anything you'd be comfortable calling "a scene."