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‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’: Lightning doesn’t strike twice

Superhero sequel doesn’t have the charming pow and zap of the first film

From left: Ross Butler, Adam Brody, Grace Caroline Currey, Zachary Levi, Meagan Good and D.J. Cotrona in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)
4 min
(2 stars)

With its wisecracking hero and flippant tone, 2019’s “Shazam!” arrived as a bolt of inspiration in the gloomy DC Extended Universe. Unfortunately, the new sequel proves an adage: Lightning doesn’t strike twice.

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” dutifully doubles down on everything that made the first film both charming and instantly disposable. But the heart and meta-humor that were so refreshing the first time feel static and stale in returning director David F. Sandberg’s more-of-the-same sequel. In the absence of novelty, the franchise’s flaws — schlocky dialogue, uninspired CGI, paper-thin baddies — are glaring.

The first movie centered on a pure-hearted Philadelphia orphan: teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who, after crossing paths with a wizard (Djimon Hounsou), gained the ability to transform into a muscle-bound adult with godlike powers (Zachary Levi). But he would not be alone. At the end of “Shazam!” Billy shared his magical gifts with his foster siblings (endearingly played by Jack Dylan Grazer, Ian Chen, Faithe Herman, Jovan Armand and Grace Caroline Currey). In “Fury of the Gods,” he finds himself shepherding a whole team of superheroes.

Transplanting the personalities of six immature kids into superpowered bodies is an inherently amusing premise — for as long as screenwriters Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan bother pursuing it. After the Shazam squad nonchalantly saves dozens of people from the collapsing Benjamin Franklin Bridge (the movie’s standout set piece, and an endorsement for a bipartisan infrastructure bill if there ever was one), the members of Billy’s team start losing their powers. Before long, we’ve been plunged into a standard-issue plot packed with McGuffins, laborious world-building and world-ending stakes.

Turns out the daughters of the Greek titan Atlas — indignant Hespera (Helen Mirren) and sadistic Kalypso (Lucy Liu) — are the ones wreaking havoc, as they look to reclaim their long-lost powers and return humanity to subservience. It’s vintage villainy, with Mirren and Liu straining under the weight of rote motivation and tiresome exposition.

Between the two villains and the double-casting of the heroes — with two actors, one young, one older, playing most members of Team Shazam — it’s inevitable that the movie will stretch itself too thin. Although Billy is ostensibly the main character, it’s hard to buy into his story arc — as a teenager confronting the realities of adulthood — when he is mostly in superhero form, as played by a 42-year-old Levi. Also, a warning to Adam Brody fans: The actor is barely on screen as the superhero alter ego of Billy’s friend Freddy, played in adolescent form by a quippy, scene-stealing Grazer. But “Fury of the Gods” does carve out room for the return of Hounsou’s wizard and the introduction of “West Side Story” breakout Rachel Zegler as a classmate who’s harboring a crush on Freddy and a secret — one that’s a little too obvious.

Other plot threads — in a story as derivative as it is overstuffed — get picked up and dropped, including ones about Philly’s resentment toward its hometown superheroes and the foster siblings’ lack of commitment to their roles. And do we really need another comic-book movie that blows up yet another sports stadium? (See “The Dark Knight Rises” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”) Another trope to toss out the window: the villain getting captured on purpose.

That said, there’s some fun to be had here. Levi is as giddy as ever, Mirren delivers the best laugh line and the product placement in the climax is gleefully unhinged. Still, a shaky return for “Shazam!” doesn’t bode well for a character who’s already on tenuous ground in DC’s cinematic universe — currently in the midst of a soft reboot following the recent appointment of James Gunn and Peter Safran as co-heads of DC Studios. For anyone not paying attention: The fates of several franchise actors in this interconnected world are not looking good, including Henry Cavill as Superman, Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as Aquaman and Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam.

Where does this film’s hero fit, in a story that alludes to some of those other characters often enough to make you wonder why they’re not saving the world? (One of them even pops up as a deus ex machina — a surprise cameo already spoiled by the movie’s advertising.) Just when you think Levi’s Shazam will be forced into DC Studios exile, a mid-credits stinger — one that seems to have Gunn’s fingerprints all over it — hints that the character’s days may not be numbered.

A return to the screen for a third “Shazam”? Now that would be this hero’s most stunning trick yet.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of action and violence, and strong language. 130 minutes.