The last time we saw Billy Batson and his newly transformed foster family of superheroes, they were the envy of Philadelphia, even getting Superman himself to fly in for a visit to meet them.
A lot has changed in the four years between Shazam! and the long-awaited sequel Fury Of The Gods, with the teens now on the cusp of adulthood and largely hated by a city that has grown tired of how much destruction their super-powered alter egos have caused in the name of saving people.
They’re not nicknamed the “Philadelphia Fiascos” by the media for nothing!
As returning director David F. Sandberg explains to Zavvi: “When we meet up with them again, they’ve been superheroes for a couple of years, but they’re still not great at it.
“They’re not appreciated by the city of Philadelphia because even though they try their best, they cause more damage than they prevent.
“They are being given a tough time as it is and it’s only getting worse, as they have three gods with an army of monsters coming after them!”
Yes, cinema’s favourite foster family are thrown back into action to face their toughest test yet: fighting back against the Daughters Of Atlas (played by Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler), who will stop at nothing to destroy the world.
We’re used to seeing stakes of this magnitude in a superhero blockbuster, but Sandberg believes the Shazam! films have an edge when compared to other movies in the genre because of their emotional grounding.
As he argues: “If the heart’s not there, then all you’ve made is a feature-length demo reel for the special effects!”
Whilst there remains minimal crossover with other DC properties, this is still a story that takes place in the world of the Justice League, which only adds to the imposter syndrome being experienced by Billy (Asher Angel) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer).
As Angel explained to Zavvi: “He doesn’t feel like he’s the chosen one and on top of that, he has this fear of abandonment, he’s about to age out of the foster care system.
“It’s still hard for him to believe everything that’s happening: he’s still in the process of self-discovery as everybody else in the family is becoming independent.
“The main thing he wants to do is keep everyone together, but they’re settling into their new lives better than he is.”
Billy remains in his Shazam! form, played by Zachary Levi, for the majority of the film, but most of his family members find themselves stripped of their powers by the Daughters Of Atlas – most notably, his superhero-obsessed foster brother Freddy.
Still bullied by his classmates when we’re reintroduced to him, Grazer’s character takes refuge in being able to transform into a hero.
There was some controversy with the first film’s depiction of a character with a physical disability transforming into a hero without one, which is corrected this time around.
In many ways, Fury Of The Gods is Freddy’s origin story, as he faces up to the responsibilities of being a hero without the need to change physically.
Sandberg adds that: “You can be a hero in so many ways, you don’t need superpowers for it. We’ve always wanted to tell Freddy’s story in a way that examines the human side of being a hero – how you can become your own superhero when you find your place in the world.”
This is something Grazer particularly loved about the film, although he was eager to return to the DC universe regardless, telling Zavvi that the first movie was by far his “favourite thing [he’d] ever worked on”.
He added: “This one is my superhero movie! I never thought this is a character whose complexities I’d ever be able to explore, I always thought he’d strictly be the comedic relief – which is still a fun role that I love doing, but it’s a more interesting challenge to explore his emotional side and the intricacy of his feelings.
“I always assumed all I’d get asked to do was put on a funny voice and talk fast, but that’s what makes Shazam! so different from other superhero movies – it has this strong family message and dynamic, there’s a real depth to these characters.
“If we didn’t have that, then it would honestly be just like everything else that’s out there.
“And I also hope that we stand out for having all of this family drama and still being so fun. You look at Batman and Superman, they’re always dreading going out to save the day, and their films are often these dark, brooding stories.
“As long as they keep making movies like that, Shazam! stays special and refreshing.”
Yes, Fury Of The Gods may be more grounded with the family drama and exploration of the emotions involved with facing up to superhero responsibilities, but above everything else, it’s still a fun romp.
There may be a heartfelt story at its core but this is balanced with multiple gags, beastly monsters straight out of a Sam Raimi movie (you’ll never look at a unicorn the same way again), and an Oscar-winning thespian playing a centuries-old mythical being hell-bent on destroying the universe.
Sandberg was particularly surprised when Helen Mirren agreed to play Hespera, but he believes the movie wouldn’t work without the actress taking on this villainous role.
The filmmaker continued: “I think you always need a villain who offers a sense of danger and can pose a real threat to the hero.
“My challenge is that I sometimes take that danger too far – I’m not the best judge of how many people you can kill and how much blood you can splatter. I grew up watching violent movies, so I think it’s all fine until somebody tells me otherwise!
“I always had the aspirational goal of getting someone like Helen Mirren as our main villain, expecting her to say no. So when she said yes, we had to elevate who else we were going to cast – we expected the other Daughters Of Atlas to be unknowns, but when you get Helen, you then need to get other people on her level.
“Honestly, the thing I’m happiest about with this movie is that I can tell people I’ve directed Helen Mirren. I’m part of her filmography forever and nobody can take that away from me!”
Returning to help the kids in their quest against the Daughters Of Atlas is The Wizard, a.k.a. Shazam, once again played by Djimon Hounsou.
Although a two-time Oscar nominee, Hounsou told Zavvi that comic book movies are amongst his favourite jobs, therefore he jumped at the chance to reprise his role – even though his character appeared to have died last time around.
He said: “I didn’t question too much whether he was alive or not – it was an immediate yes when I was offered to come back, so he came back to life for me right then!
“This time he is making sure this teenager is able to handle his power, which is a very different dynamic to what he had with Billy in the first film. Freddy is an uncontrollable teenager, which I think helped bring out new sides to my character.
“He doesn’t have a chameleonic personality, so having to interact with such a naughty teenager was quite a lot!”
The door is left open for a potential Shazam! 3 at the end of this film, with Sandberg keen to stress that nothing here contradicts James Gunn’s plans for the revamped DCU – a sign that a potential trilogy-closer could go ahead with no significant changes to the formula needed.
However, one thing that won’t be happening will be Shazam! facing off against his most notable comic book villain: Black Adam.
Sandberg emphasised: “He was never going to be a part of this movie – it would make sense to have them fight at some point, but we never had conversations about where the two of them might ever meet up.”
This might be for the best, as far as Dwayne Johnson is concerned, as both Angel and Grazer think it would be an easy fight: “Of course Shazam! would win – he’s the chosen one and he has a whole family behind him. Black Adam doesn’t want the smoke from that, he’s just some schmuck!”
In regards to how the franchise itself will become integrated into Gunn’s DCU, the director and cast remained tight-lipped, although Angel stated that a full crossover with the Justice League is “the goal” going forward.
However, his co-star’s idea for where Shazam! 3 could go doesn’t exactly cross paths with any of those heroes.
“My pitch to James Gunn, if he’s seeing this: have Shazam! wrestle somebody in space! I’ve never seen it before, so we could corner the market in this very niche sub-genre – I think he would absolutely thrive in that environment!”
Regardless of where the Shazam! saga will take us next, after seeing Fury Of The Gods, you’ll be hoping it can remain a central part of DC’s Cinematic Universe.
Shazam! Fury Of The Gods is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th March.