An amiable charm and some fun supporting performances keep this DC sequel afloat, but good luck remembering any of it by next week. It's a Men in Black neuralyzer of a movie.
It’s a difficult time to be a DC movie. The DC Universe is in a state of flux, with James Gunn about to take charge of the various superhero movie franchises under the company’s umbrella. By the time The Flash release date comes around later this year, we all expect that time travel movie shenanigans will leave things looking very different in this particular corner of Hollywood’s comic book multiverse.
If a new movie isn’t a part of Chapter 1 Gods and Monsters, it feels a little irrelevant. On that note, sorry Shazam 2. It’s not your fault. The 2019 action movie Shazam was a breath of fresh air for DC. The Shazam cast brought a very welcome comedy movie energy to a universe that, at the time, was known for its super-serious, Snyder-mandated tendency to paint, as Lego Batman would say, only in black or very, very dark grey.
The addition of horror movie specialist David F. Sandberg in the director’s chair made sure that, even amid the laughs and scenes of super-powered characters flossing – available online forever as a truly cursed GIF – there were darker edges.
Shazam 2 sands off those edges and leans a lot harder into the superhero template, sacrificing much of the originality of its predecessor for something that is totally fine and completely watchable, but never exciting or surprising. Anyone hoping for an anarchic adventure movie in which the Big Bad is the Machiavellian alien caterpillar Mister Mind, as teased in the Shazam post-credits scene, will be very disappointed indeed.
This time around, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is trying to hold together a super-team led by his hero alter ego (Zachary Levi) and featuring his equally super-powered foster family. They’re all tired of Billy’s post-mission debriefs and just want to do their own thing. With great power comes great ability to prat around with your friends.
The daughters of Atlas, though, are DC villains determined to challenge all of this teenage wish-fulfilment. The chief movie villain is Helen Mirren as the devilish Hespera, alongside mind control maestro Kalypso (Lucy Liu) and Anthea (Rachel Zegler), who we meet going undercover as a high-schooler for reasons that are never made clear.
The daughters are after one of about half a dozen mystical MacGuffins floating around the movie, and seem to change their focus every few scenes. They’re after a magical staff, they’re after a person, they’re after an apple, they’re after the staff again, and so on and so forth until it’s very difficult to understand or care. They even seal Philadelphia into the dome from The Simpsons Movie at some point, without ever explaining why.
Even leading man Levi, whose kinetic comic energy kept the first movie afloat almost single-handedly, looks a little bored by it all. But he’s not nearly as sleepy as the deeply demotivated Mirren, who is far too talented to have to deliver lines like “don’t underestimate the power of the wizard” with a straight face. Driving really fast in a muscle car with Vin Diesel – into an explosion on the moon, presumably – is considerably more dignified than this.
But despite the contrivances and the lack of energy in some of the performances, there’s a sense of pace and fun. It moves through its relatively hefty two-hours-plus with an admirable zip, which is doubly impressive given the fact it’s almost impossible to work out what’s going on half the time.
Things start badly with an action sequence that commits the ultimate cinematic crime – using Holding Out for a Hero without being the animated movie masterpiece Shrek 2 – but most of the CGI guff is mildly diverting, including a horde of nasty mythological monsters and a terrifying dragon with a version of Godzilla’s atomic breath, made entirely of gnarled wood. This stuff is absolutely Sandberg’s special sauce, and it would be a real shame if he didn’t return to monster movies very soon.
The young Shazam cast, too, really shine when given their time in the spotlight. Bona fide rising star Zegler, who starred in one of the best musicals of recent years with Steven Spielberg movie West Side Story, gets probably the most interesting character arc here as her loyalty to family is tested, while Jack Dylan Grazer’s mix of comedy and tragic teen movie emotional maximalism is way better than the story around him. I’m not sure I fancy a Shazam 3, but I’d take a solo outing for Grazer’s character Freddy in a heartbeat.
Ultimately, Shazam 2 is a competent and eminently forgettable superhero movie. It’s destined in the future to be a difficult pub quiz question about Helen Mirren movies, rather than a memorable entry in the DC canon. There are some efforts to tie things into wider continuity – including a very weird cameo that was spoiled in the trailers – but these feel perfunctory at best.
DC might’ve benefited from Shazam in 2019, but the new Gunn era has plenty more arrows in its quiver – and they have far more to offer than Zachary Levi flossing. Maybe they should have gone with the alien caterpillar after all.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods hits UK and US cinemas on March 17, 2023. For more information, here is our guide on how to watch Shazam 2.
To find out more about the DC Universe going forward, check out our guides to the best movies and best TV series still to come in the new phase, including the Superman Legacy release date, the Lanterns release date, and the Supergirl Woman of Tomorrow release date.