‘Shazam’ Is A Franchise With An Identity Crisis

Shazam 2, aka Shazam: Fury Of The Gods, has the distinct flavor of too many cooks in the kitchen. True, superhero movies always have a thousand cooks in the kitchen, but this one especially feels like a confused college student trying on different identities for a semester at a time. Which is a shame, because the first Shazam is probably my favorite superhero movie of the last decade. The sequel is like watching a good friend come back from a study abroad with an affected accent that you can’t talk them out of.

Shazam 2 does have the occasional sparkle of that Shazam magic, especially in the early going. It isn’t nearly the insult to its predecessor that, say, Kick-Ass 2 was to Kick-Ass. Part of the beauty of Shazam was that it did genuinely feel like a movie aimed at 10 or 11-year-olds, in stark contrast to the Marvel approach, of aiming at bottle-fed adults. Shazam! was rendered in primary colors and was silly at times (the villains were the seven deadly sins!), but it was a direct appeal to actual human emotions rather than a sacrifice to the Gods of continuity. If there’s one aspect of superhero movies I’m not totally sick of yet, it’s the moment when the hero discovers his powers — a plotline Shazam! did better than probably anything since Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie.

Not only that, the was a foster kid (Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, who turns into Zach Levi), not some descendant of an ancient line of demigods (how I love a superhero plot that doesn’t involve a monarchy), and rather than becoming part of some pseudo-governmental, supranational agency charged with protecting the rabble, the final battle seemed to be a kind of metaphor for the internal struggle to be a less shitty person. And all wrapped up in a love story about found family. Again, I love Shazam!

Now Shazam is back, but in exchange for granting it a sequel, the Gods of continuity want their pound of flesh. The plot Fury Of The Gods‘ writers (Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan) have cooked up manages to be both overly simplistic and painfully convoluted. There’s some sweetness to the story of these characters, but every time they try to scale it up into some broader, connected universe mythology it becomes this hideous hybrid beast, like a sitcom sprouting malignant tumors of naked commerce. I’m entirely serious when I say that a climactic moment in Shazam 2 has an actual Skittles commercial in it, complete with a little girl shouting “taste the rainbow!”

Billy Batson himself is struggling with “impostor syndrome” (could I just have one respite from thinkpiece-ready pop psychology terms, please?), and with the fact that his foster siblings-turned-superhero-squad seem on the verge of going their separate ways. MEANWHILE, disabled Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer, probably the stronger actor of the two and also Brian Grazer’s nephew) is dealing with the indignity of having to maintain his identity as a disabled high schooler even when he can Shazam himself into a superhero (played by the always lovable Adam Brody). Billy explains all these insecurities, and that they stem from him being an orphan abandoned by his mother and gifted superpowers by a dying wizard, in a scene that seems to find just the right balance of winningly cheeky and nauseatingly post-modern.

It’s only when the Big Baddies show up that the movie sort of falls apart. Those baddies arrive in the form of the daughters of Atlas (the actual Greek deity Atlas), who are pissed that the Djimon Hounsou Wizard stole their powers and gave them to a kid. Now they’ve come to Earth to get them back, and also to retrieve “the seeds of life” and regrow the God realm they love. Just like it was in Thor: Love And Thunder, pitting Gods against humans is a whole can of worms that a superhero movie has neither the time nor the nuance to deal with in any real way. Why is it when commerce paints itself into a corner it always ends up trying to reinvent religion?

So, uh.. not only do the Shazam kids have to fight the Gods to defend the humans, but it turns out there’s also a bit of a sibling rivalry in the Atlas household. The most human-sympathetic sister, Anthea (Rachel Zegler) presents as a high school kid and doubles as Freddy’s love interest. The most vengeful sister, Kalypso, wants to punish humanity, and is played by Lucy Liu, which is a big problem because Kalypso yells a lot and while I enjoy Lucy Liu in most contexts, her intensely nasal yelling voice is like sandpaper on my ear drums. There’s also another sister played by Helen Mirren who is somewhere in between the other two.

Meanwhile, the “seeds of life” also grow deadly roots that manifest mythical bad guys (Cyclops, Minotaur…) who stomp around killing people. The seeds are also guarded by a giant wooden dragon that Kalypso rides. “Hey, Khaleesi!” Shazam yells at her at one point.

You can tell the writers are flailing when they start using pop culture references like drywall spackle (which is exactly how “humor” generally works in the MCU). To put a finer point on it, the character plot between the foster family (which has potential) doesn’t really connect at all to the larger mythological conflict, which is like someone put every shitty superhero movie trope into a blender. Shazam is so focused on trying to be something else that it loses what it actually had (genuine emotions!).

There’s a tension within DC, which has shown up in the last Suicide Squad (yes there were two), Black Adam, and now Shazam 2, between being the anti-Marvel (at which it displays occasional flashes of brilliance) and a sort-of poor man’s Marvel, which is awful thing for anything to be. That tension is starker than ever in Fury Of The Gods, which is half-kids family superhero movie and half-disastrous Marvel wannabe that plays like a fan-fiction sub-universe of Wonder Woman (don’t even ask, man).

If I could take you beyond the spoiler veil for a moment here (STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ SPOILERS)…

..

.

…nothing exemplifies Shazam 2‘s identity crisis like the post-credits scene. This post-credits sequence stars Jennifer Holland and Steve Agee and attempts to tie in Shazam, a smart-alecky kids’ superhero movie, with Peacemaker, an R-rated HBO series. Is there any good reason for these two properties to connect? What if you just made two good things that were separate?

Instead, we see these characters trying to recruit Shazam into The Justice Society (which you probably don’t remember from its failed subplot in Black Adam). Shazam does a big joke speech about how the Justice League and the Justice Society should probably have different words so that people don’t get them confused. He pulls out his phone and starts googling synonyms. The “button” of the scene is him pitching “The Avengers Society.” Get it? Because The Avengers! Is Shazam Deadpool now? It all feels so pathetic.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his archive of reviews here.

×