“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” arrives with two strikes against it since it’s not only a studio-produced sequel but also a superhero movie made in 2023. One should expect a certain level of creative committee-mandated, Mad Libs-y monotony, regardless of how one feels about the surprisingly decent “Shazam!”. The makers of that fine-enough 2019 franchise-starter, including director David F. Sandberg, toned down both the Troma Lite cynicism and post-Spielberg sentimentality that’s come to define the lighthearted James Gunn-style super-projects that dominate the landscape.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” meanders further in that direction. The first “Shazam!” works as well as it does because it’s mostly focused on two adolescent pipsqueaks, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who get sucked into a generic fantasy, with some assistance from their extended family of orphan buddies. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” mostly sticks to the comic book formula that the first movie poked fun at, despite another strong comedic performance from star Zachary Levi and some sporadic yuks throughout. It’s schtickier and less assured than the first “Shazam!” but these leftovers still reheat well enough.
Billy, Freddy, and their foster family members return to fight the latest vengeful dangling plot thread, this time a trio of vindictive sorceresses called the Daughters of Atlas, led by Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), who want to avenge their father, Atlas (not in this picture). The identity of the third Daughter is briefly shrouded in mystery.
Billy’s anxieties speak loudest for the “Marvel Family,” as comics fans know them, a convivial group of tweens whom, after yelling the magic word “Shazam,” are granted godlike superpowers. But even the residents of Philadelphia, where most of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” takes place, don’t seem to know who these kids are. They refer to the Marvels as the “Philly Fiascos,” presumably because you can’t successfully brand a DC Comics character as a Marvel anything. Billy also longs to know what his “superhero name” is; he gets some answers after he unexpectedly reunites with his grumpy guru/mentor, the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who somehow survived the events of the first “Shazam!”. Don’t worry if you forgot this last plot point, Billy and Freddy repeatedly joke about it.
That kind of pre-chewed humor is only charming because it’s finessed by the movie’s ensemble cast members, especially the actors who play the punchy, adult-aged demigods that Billy and his family become when they say the magic word. Levi, who plays Billy’s alter-ego Shazam (also known as Captain Marvel), and Adam Brody, who plays “Super Freddy” (AKA Captain Marvel Jr., Elvis’ favorite super-guy), both stand out as adolescents struggling with thankless grown-up feelings and responsibilities. The movie’s adult villains don’t stand out, though Mirren still smirks like a champ.
There are signs of a warmer and cleverer adolescent super-drama throughout “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” Clearly enunicated and frantically declaimed dialogue hints at Billy’s prevailing fear of “aging out of” his family, especially now that he’s about to turn 18 years old. His other family members also have lives to live, but we only catch glimpses of them whenever the plot stalls long enough to highlight likable but under-developed supporting characters, like the unicorn-loving Darla (Faithe Herman) or the closeted Pedro (Jovan Armand), both of whom graze the heart-strings with focus-group-level efficiency.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” might have been better if it were more focused on both Billy and Freddy and their hormonal anxieties. Billy dreams of wooing Wonder Woman (in two scenes), and Freddy’s got a crush on new girl Anthea (Rachel Zegler, who sadly has no chemistry with Grazer). Billy keeps saying he’s all about family, but maybe he should focus on feuding with his surrogate brother and wrestling with his super-ego? That worked before, so why not an encore?
Most of the big emotional moments lack cornball vigor, though Levi still takes all the extra room he’s given to create a goofy character who, like an actual teenager, doesn’t have a filter or an indoor voice. This makes up for some things, especially in a movie where the big action scenes mostly sit there, and the gags need to be both sped up and punched up. You have to want to hang out with the Philly Fiascos, and Levi’s arguably the best combination of main character and lead performer in a recent superhero pic. It’s too bad there are several other characters in this movie.
Honestly, Captain Marvel’s a tough character to get right, and if DC still can’t nail a sunny—or functionally grimdark—Superman movie, what hope does Levi’s big red cheese have of surviving the latest DC implosion? The odds never really favored another live-action “Shazam!” but this new one will still do in a pinch.
Now playing in theaters.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and language.