Whether because of the pandemic, the constant comings-and-goings of the DC Extended Universe, or the first movie from 2019 simply not being that memorable, “Shazam!” seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I’m going to be pointing out a number of similarities between this character and Ant-Man from the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe, but a key difference is that fans noticed that Ant-Man was absent from “Avengers: Infinity War” in 2018. They wanted to know where he was and how he was going to tie into the larger story. Has any DCEU fan seen any of the franchise’s output since 2019 and thought, “I wonder where Shazam is in all this”? Sure, the new movie won the weekend box office because of its genre, affiliations, and advertising, but did people go to see it because they actually care about it? Or did they feel that it’s their job to see new tentpole releases, no matter how little they care? I went because I had a “job” of sorts to see it for this column – and sitting through this by-the-numbers superhero dreck turned out to be a “job” unto itself.
A quick recap: teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been imbued with superpowers by the wizard also named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). All he has to do is say magic word “Shazam!” and he turns into an adult (Zachary Levi) with powers including super speed and strength. Following the first movie, all the other kids in his foster family are similarly-powered: Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer/Adam Brody), Eugene (Ross Butler/Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armond/D.J. Cotrona), Darla (Faithe Herman/Meagan Good), and Mary (Grace Caroline Currey in both forms, as the character is now an adult). All the character development the others get is that Mary passed up an opportunity to go to college, Pedro is… pretending to like baseball (handled very clumsily), and smart-aleck Freddy has a girlfriend (Rachel Zegler, making me think that the promise she showed in the “West Side Story” remake was a fluke).
The family is up against the Daughters of Atlas: Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and a third member whose identity is secret, but I thought was fairly easy to guess. The Daughters want the staff that gives Shazam and company their powers, though they’re divided on what to do with the staff once they get it. Hespera wants to fix their own world and leave Earth alone, while Kalypso wants to devastate Earth like their own world has been devastated. Seems like an issue they should have hammered out in the past few centuries, but they choose to squabble in the moment.
Much of the film’s appeal lies in its humor. All the main characters are essentially children, so there’s supposedly a playful childishness to the proceedings. Zachary Levi has all the effortless charm of a Paul Rudd, so the idea is that the movie has a fun, bouncy tone with a few moments of serious coolness. Instead what we get is an overload of unfunny jokes about the characters’ awkwardness, a style of humor that has sunk the last several MCU movies. I laughed at Mirren reading an un-proofread letter, but that was about it. And the action and serious scenes certainly can’t carry the movie, not even with the deus ex machina (with “deus” taken literally) at the end.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” is yet another blah superhero movie in an era where it seems like all we get is blah superhero movies. I don’t see it bringing in many new fans to the DCEU, nor do I even see fans of the original liking it very much. Like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” its destiny is to do well for a weekend or two and then be discarded, because people aren’t going to look back on it with fond memories. Too bad the filmmakers can’t “Shazam!” themselves into funnier people.
“Shazam: Fury of the Gods” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and language. Its running time is 130 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.