Over the next three months, Warner Brothers will release two separate blockbusters starring super-dudes who zip around in red suits emblazoned with lightning bolts. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” a sequel that trips over its desperation to amuse, needs the running start over “The Flash.”
Not only does its lead character have lower brand recognition because of his inability to outrun a speeding trademark attorney; he’s spent eight decades searching for a reason to exist. In 1941, two years after he was created, the character (known then as Captain Marvel) was the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit by the publishers of Superman, who claimed that he was a knockoff with identical powers. Decades later, when he attempted a comeback, Marvel Comics stripped away his name with a cease-and-desist. Even here, within the safe space of his own overlong and clangy movies, he flails for an identity. Should he go by Thundercrack? Zap-tain America? The returning director David F. Sandberg’s one good idea is centering the character’s anxiety on his redundance — a super-clone weighed down by impostor syndrome. Spin the jagged M of his lightning bolt horizontally and Sandberg could claim it stands for Captain Metajoke.
Two hours into his second movie, our hero (Zachary Levi) finally adopts the moniker Shazam!, which stands for his ability to channel the combined abilities of the gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. Tweedy types, myself included, might grumble that Solomon and Achilles aren’t technically gods — and that, for consistency, Mercury should really be Hermes — but what’s the point when a guy with the supposed wisdom of Solomon opens the movie bleating, “I’m an idiot!”
The problem with Shazam! — let’s do without the spirit fingers for the rest of this review — is that the character used up his best ideas in the first movie, which came out in 2019. For his debut, Sandberg and the screenwriter Henry Gayden were graced with low expectations and a wallop of tenderness and wit. All they had to do was endear us to young Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a 14-year-old runaway who ka-pows into his magical alter ego (Levi) whenever the boy yells, well, you know. The heart came from watching the lonely child embrace his foster family and, ultimately, share his powers with five other orphans; the laughs came from the body-morphing comedy of seeing a teen in an adult-size skin suit realize that with great power comes the ability to buy booze. If the Avengers are swaggering mall cops who maintain order for the purpose of selling T-shirts and toys, Shazam is the juvenile delinquent shoplifting their dignity.
Levi boasts a dopey, roguish charm associated more with Super Bowl beer commercials than super-tights. He’s a good physical comedian, especially when he gnaws a breath mint like a bunny. Yet, as the child version of Shazam nears 18, the character can’t stay moronic forever — and there won’t be anything interesting about him once he matures. To stall for time, his character arc is merely a bunt. (As best I could figure, he has to either unite his family … or learn to let them go?) The script, by Gayden and Chris Morgan, a longtime “Fast & Furious” scribe, clutters the bases with over a dozen distractions: six super-siblings at two age stages, three Greek gods, a half-dozen breeds of mythological beasties, two parents, one wizard, and one weak romance between the goddess Anthea (Rachel Zegler, who spends the running time fretfully furrowing her brow) and Billy’s brother Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, an intense, moody actor with the potential — and connections — to be a serious star. (His uncle is the producer Brian Grazer.)
Drama starts when two daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), storm into an Athenian history museum to steal an ancient staff that will restore their celestial ability to raze and smash. I’d credit Mirren for the flourish when her character claws at the staff’s display box like a cat pawing a fish tank, but I’m not entirely sure it was her under the pixels. Once empowered, the immortal sisters reduce the museum’s treasures (and its tourists) to rubble, having as much reverence for human artifacts as we might have for an Ikea couch. Then the pair sets out to squeeze extra god juice from Shazam and his cohorts, who are, as one might expect from untrained children, so awful at hero-ing that their hometown, Philadelphia, has nicknamed them the Fiascos. (Still, to a city that treasures misfit mascots like Gritty and the Phillie Phanatic, that name may be somewhat affectionate.)
The quippy script doesn’t take much seriously. The score, by Christophe Beck, insists that we do. It’s an ungainly mishmash of tones that comes together only in one bizarre, wonderful gag when a graying wizard (Djimon Hounsou) barges into Billy’s erotic dream to deliver some very serious exposition with his head fused to Wonder Woman’s bronze-plated breasts.
Performance-wise, the film is cleaved into two camps: teens versus titans, or really, relentless wisecrackers in on the overall joke versus stern grande dames who treat the joke as sophomoric. The closest Liu comes to a smile is a twitch of anticipation just before she blasts someone with a laser beam. Mirren, looking otherworldly in white mascara and a taloned crown, only bothered to bring one expression to set, a non-emotion best described as “hypnotic cobra face.” When Mirren allows herself to be body-slammed, the shock of seeing the cinema’s queen thwacked into concrete makes it impossible to focus on the stakes of the scene. Instead of thinking about the division of god and mortal, we’re distracted by the blurring of actors and wrestlers.
Sandberg started his career in small horror films, and doesn’t seem to have much ambition to scale up. Most of the sequences are cut from medium shots strung together without much style — they may as well be a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. The fight scenes are a repetitive headache of lightning zaps and crushed cars. (Twice, a bridge gets destroyed.) One team meet-up is staged, randomly, at an auto junkyard; it’s as though these serial sedan-killers want to lord it over the corpses. The look is bold and blah, either blue-gray gloom or a shellacking of amber magic-hour glow. Whenever there’s an image with visual awe — say, Shazam battling through a blaze of electricity — the movie hastily cuts away, as if embarrassed by its own aspirations. Relax, super-bro. You’re not going to get sued for striving to be more than a runner-up.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods
Rated PG-13 for C.G.I. action smashery. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. In theaters.