‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ Review: Zachary Levi Is Back in a Sequel With More Monsters and Less Joy

Why did they give Zachary Levi a haircut for “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”? Four years ago, in the first “Shazam!,” Levi played a kid in a superhero’s body, and the movie was smart and witty enough to come off as a caped version of “Big.” Levi’s look was a major part of it. Shazam, with that cheesy lightning bolt and gold belt and white Italian-restaurant tablecloth of a cape, didn’t resemble other recent comic-book-film heroes; he was more like something out of the ’40s. And Levi sealed the deal was his big popping eyes and ingenuous gee-whiz grin (he was, after all, playing a 14-year-old inside), as well as the hair that topped off his boyish spirit. It was dark and shiny and stood up an inch-and-a-half from his head — a ‘do as superhero stylized, in its way, as the old Superman’s.

In “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” Levi is back, a little older inside (Shazam’s alter ego, the foster kid Billy Batson, is now pushing 18), but that comic disconnect between the bulked-up dude in his red suit with his limitless powers and the teenager who’s in over his head is still (somewhat) on display. Levi, once again, carries the movie, though with a shade less of that infectious buoyancy. His hair has been tweaked into a slightly shorter, more conventional cut (from certain angles it’s almost a fade), and while the difference isn’t huge, and it may sound like I’m carping over nothing, the new hair changes his aura. He seems less wide-eyed, less winningly goofy, less stylized.

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That’s true of the movie as well. “Fury of the Gods” is one of those superhero sequels that goes through the paces, presenting us with a story that’s meticulously convoluted and weightless, only to ratchet up the CGI, as if that were the film’s way of testifying to its Major Popcorn Movieness. Plenty of comic-book sequels do that, of course, but the first “Shazam!” was a special case. It had a breezy screw-loose charm that felt not so much superhuman as good old human. It somehow sidestepped the digitally tooled blockbuster cynicism, but “Fury of the Gods” falls right into it. The film isn’t terrible, but it’s busy, formulaic and rather joyless. The “Shazam!” saga has been given an expensive haircut, but it’s lost a lot of its flavor in the process.

Part of that is it’s a tough encore to bring off. Origin stories can be stage setters, with the more exciting action yet to come (just think of “Batman Begins” relative to “The Dark Knight”), but sometimes the origin story is the main course. “Shazam!” was about Billy trying to wrap his teenage head around the fact that he was a superhero, gifted with unimaginable powers from Djimon Hounsou’s Wizard. He spent the heart of the movie figuring out how to use those powers, and also, like an urchin-delinquent Clark Kent, keeping his vulnerable identity under wraps. Now that the cat is out of the bag, and Shazam has been joined by his entire houseful of foster-kids-turned-superheroes, they’re a bit like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: a blander junior Justice League. Asher Angel, as Billy, is older now, but he’s further from the center of the movie, almost an adjunct character.

Our heroes are still going up against world-class villains — at least, if you look at the casting. Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler play Hespera, Kalypso, and Anthea, the Daughters of Atlas, who have come to earth to take back the power of the gods from Shazam and his crew, who in their view stole that power. You’d think that Helen Mirren, a true I-could-listen-to-her-read-the-phonebook actor (if we still had phonebooks), could make something out of this, but as soon as Hespera and Kalypso make their entrance, hidden under knights’ helmets in a museum, where they’ve come to steal a broken magic staff from its exhibition case, the two come off like troublemakers on an ominous but generic mission.

The script, co-written by Henry Gayden (who wrote the first film) and Chris Morgan (who has written six of the nine “Fast and Furious” films), doesn’t allow Mirren to cut loose the way Cate Blanchett did in “Thor: Ragnarok” or Mark Strong did in “Shazam!” A tasty villain in a comic-book movie doesn’t have to scale the visionary heights of Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” but he or she should sustain a certain tasty depth of evil ego. Mirren, I’m sorry, is wasted, and so is Lucy Liu, whose chill ferocity is reduced to a kind of one-note snit fit. Rachel Zegler, from “West Side Story,” has a more complicated role, with more of a relationship to our heroes, but that, too, should have been further developed. Anthea’s interactions with Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), the foster nerd who walks with a cane, have a high-school-comedy vividness reminiscent of the Tom Holland “Spider-Man” movies (David F. Sandberg, the director of the first “Shazam!,” is back, and this is the place you can feel his puckish spirit). But that soon falls by the wayside. Besides, how much can we care about a magic staff that looks like a stage-prop witch’s broomstick with an energy-saving lightbulb inside?

Fear not! There is also a golden apple and a dome placed over Philadelphia. And there are monsters, starting with a dragon that pops up for no good reason. In its spindly way, it looks like it came out of the same wood shop that crafted Groot and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. There is also an explosion of what look like giant grape vines (also wood-like), out of the pods of which erupt a crew of beasties: a gnashing cyclops, a gnashing griffin, and more gnashers. And there are unicorns! But not rainbow-colored angelic ones — dark and sturdy ones that look like stallions. By the time all these creatures have shown up, we feel like we need a flo-chart to calculate the hierarchy of power. Magic staff > beasties < unicorns = dragon.

The villains are defeated, the mythology is fulfilled, but the real story here is that a superhero saga that seemed to hold out possibilities of lifesize quirkiness and delight winds up getting squashed into the shape of any other superhero franchise. The force that does that is the true power that needs to be defeated.

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