One of the charms of 2019’s Shazam! was its peculiar offhand quality. While it technically was (and is) part of Warner Bros. and DC’s attempts to replicate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its story of a troubled teenager given superhero powers didn’t feel like yet another desperate exercise in world-building; you could watch and enjoy it without ever having seen another comic-book flick. It was funny, fun, and nimble — qualities superhero movies are supposed to have but almost never do these days.
And now comes Shazam! Fury of the Gods to break the spell. In the sequel, again directed by David F. Sandberg, our hero’s hometown of Philadelphia is besieged by the Daughters of Atlas, ancient beings out to avenge their father’s death at the hands of the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), the ancient warrior and sorcerer who bequeathed his powers to Shazam (Zachary Levi), the superpowered grown-up alter ego of young Billy Batson (Asher Angel), in the first movie. Of course, Shazam doesn’t call himself Shazam yet. A running, albeit botched, gag in the film involves the protagonist’s attempts to come up with a name for his super-self.
Part of the challenge here is conceptual. Origin stories aren’t always exciting, but the first Shazam! generated suspense and humor from Billy’s discovery of his powers and his family of fellow foster children’s eventual discovery of theirs. Now, they’re just another superhero team, going about saving Philadelphians from assorted menaces, and the movie has gone from being a kids’ wish-fulfilment fantasy to just another effects-smothered action flick.
Which might have been fine if the action itself were directed with anything resembling wit, invention, or energy. An early scene in which our heroes save dozens of bystanders stuck during a bridge collapse is set to the Bonnie Tyler classic “Holding Out for a Hero” (which was itself recorded for the movie Footloose in 1984), and the attempt to goose the heroics with a rousing, overheated ’80s pop song instead winds up underlining the flaccid direction: The scene is choppy, lifeless, and awkward. It wishes it could live up to Bonnie Tyler’s raspy, exhilarating wailing.
Later sequences, including an extended final set piece when the Daughters of Atlas encase Philadelphia in a giant magic bubble and unleash terrifying mythical beasts on the citizenry, don’t fare much better. As the film’s two central villains, Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren are mostly wasted; the production appears to have spent more time designing various magic creatures than coming up with anything interesting for these actors to say or do. Some of the creatures, to be fair, are scary and imaginative. But even that thread sours when, to coax out unicorns with some stand-in for ambrosia, a.k.a. “the food of the gods,” our heroes rely on … Skittles. Then they ride the unicorns and yell, “Taste the rainbow!” I am not making this up. Maybe this would have worked as a moment of wild, self-aware comedy had the movie around it been irreverent and spirited instead of lumbering and predictable. Or maybe it would have seemed less like a commercial if the Skittles-eating unicorns wound up figuring into the plot in some significant way. Either way, I hope the Wrigley Company got its money’s worth, because I sure didn’t.
That said, great action scenes probably couldn’t have saved this enterprise either. Fundamentally, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is a whole lot of Shazam and not enough Billy Batson, who is the more intriguing character. About to turn 18, Billy is on the verge of aging out of the foster-care system, and he’s worried that he might have to leave his family. Maybe that anxiety is what drives his insistence that he and his fellow heroes always stick together. That’s a promising narrative avenue, but it’s one the film mostly abandons, because it basically abandons Billy.
As the grown-up Shazam, Levi has the exaggerated mannerisms of an overgrown child: eyes wide, cheeks puffed with petulant rage when he’s angry, and a face that never quite registers as sincere. In the first film, in small doses, this made for an engaging contrast with Angel’s more moody portrayal of Billy. This time, building a whole movie around the older performer does nobody any favors: The 42-year-old Levi (who isn’t a bad actor) is still effectively playing an avatar of another character, so he’s stuck with a performance of a performance, while Angel is largely absent. Late in the story, during a dramatic moment, Billy’s foster parents ask him to switch back to his child self for an important exchange, seemingly expressing a thought in the audience’s mind as well — that the kids should have remained the emotional center of this film. Shazam! Fury of the Gods isn’t unwatchable. It’s competent, uninspired swill, undone largely by the fact that it’s following up a superior first movie. It feels like one of those sequels (think Kick-Ass 2, think The Legend of Zorro, think Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) that will be long forgotten while the original remains a fond memory.
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