'Shazam! Fury of the Gods' has lost some magic : Pop Culture Happy Hour Four years ago, Shazam! was a surprise hit and a lighthearted entry in the DC Extended Universe. It follows teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who's bestowed with magical powers and turns in an adult superhero, played by Zachary Levi. In the new sequel Shazam! Fury Of The Gods, Levi returns with a big cast that includes newcomers Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler.

'Shazam! Fury of the Gods' has lost some magic

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Four years ago, the movie "Shazam!" was a surprise hit. It was a lighthearted entry in the DC Extended Universe that's often grimmer and grittier in tone.


Now star Zachary Levi returns with a great big cast of characters in a new sequel called "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods." I'm Glen Weldon.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


THOMPSON: Due to some last-minute logistical issues, it's just the two of us today. So some of you might not remember every detail of the original "Shazam!", given that it's been four years, and, you know, a few things have gone on in that time. So here is a quick refresher. The first film gave us the origin story of an orphaned teenager named Billy Batson. Basically, Billy gets bestowed with godlike superpowers in such a way that whenever Billy yells the word shazam, he transforms into a red-suited superhero. Young Billy is played by Asher Angel, while Super Billy takes the form of Zachary Levi, who basically plays a super man-child - a big galoot with big powers, but also the mind of a wisecracking teenager with imposter syndrome.

By the end of the first film, our hero uses his powers to transform his young foster siblings into a kind of super team, all of whom must then keep their identities secret, while living under the roof of their saintly foster parents. In "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods," Billy and at least one of his siblings are starting to age out of the foster system, while their team struggles to fend off dangers and live double-lives in Philadelphia. Their efforts are complicated by the arrival of new villains called Daughters of Atlas. They include Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, who returned to Earth seeking godlike powers and revenge. At the same time, Billy's foster brother Freddy, played by Jack Dylan Grazer as a kid and Adam Brody as a superhero, faces a new set of challenges when he falls for a mysterious new girl at school. She's played by Rachel Zegler. Djimon Hounsou returns from the first film as the wizard who gave Billy his powers.

As with many superhero movies, the plot here is both convoluted and straightforward. The bad guys want death and destruction. Our heroes do their best amid setbacks. Many buildings are toppled along the way. Both "Shazam!" films are directed by David F. Sandberg. This one is written by Henry Gayden, who wrote the first film, as well as Chris Morgan. "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods" is in theaters now. Glen, what did you think of the movie?

WELDON: Well, you know, I went back and read my review for NPR of the first one, and there I'm like, hey, yay, goofiness. Finally, whimsy and color and brightness in this universe. And for the sequel, they certainly turned up the volume on the goofiness. They turned up the volume on everything. And when you do that, you get some distortion. You get some fuzziness. I am here for this movie on paper, in theory, but as executed here, not so much. I mean, I've said before that during the grim, gritty, dark, grayish-brown era of Zack Snyder DC films, I was out here wishing we'd lighten up a little bit. I wished on a monkey's paw 'cause I got my wish, but the frogurt is also cursed.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: I like the choice to go lighter. I'm always going to like the choice to go lighter. But I kind of hate the specific choices that are made here by Zachary Levi. And I say choices - there's just the one choice. There's just the one note, just the one joke over and over again. The character says something dumb, makes a pop culture reference that this ancient god, played by Helen Mirren, kind of squints quizzically at.


ZACHARY LEVI: (As Shazam) OK, look; I might not have as much experience as you 'cause I'm not, like, super old like you. But I think I have a few experiences that you don't have 'cause I've seen all of the "Fast And The Furious" movies, lady, and let me tell you something - it's all about family.

WELDON: Lather, rinse, repeat. Just do that 130 times, once per minute - that's your movie. That's unfair. There are some good jokes here. There are some good heroic sequences of them saving people. But I just think this movie is so eager to indulge Levi's schticky, mugging, go-for-the-jugular approach, which kind of leaves him, you know, alone on screen. Everyone around him is stranded. They're talking to themselves. And it seems like the only one who is remotely on his wavelength is Grazer, who plays young Freddy Freeman. But the same mistake is happening there. He has similarly been directed to take what he did in the first film and just go bigger and steer harder into this nerdy schtick that comes off as caricature. So he is playing the kind of nerd that you'd see on a Disney Channel sitcom in 2006. This whole thing - that central impulse to just indulge the actors to go bigger kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.

THOMPSON: Yeah, boy, I came down basically identically. I found the first film really refreshing, as you said, as kind of counterprogramming against so many of the other films in that DC Universe that had that Zack Snyder effect - everything is big and grim and gritty, and also, the movie is 2 hours and 57 minutes long. You know, the first movie and the sequel are both a little closer to two hours and, as such, have kind of a knockabout charm that I find really refreshing compared to that much heavier and much more portentous feel of a lot of films in this universe.

But I agree with you that this film is always trying to do 20% too much, and as such, it loses that shagginess. Part of the fun of the origin story in the first film is that these are modest characters, you know, kind of playing around with these ideas for the first time. And this movie - as you said, it dials up the wisecracking a lot. Zachary Levi's whole manner here is so much doofier (ph). And you have a little bit of a natural issue that was bound to happen where the conceit of this story is you have, like, a gawky teenager who gets to kind of live that big-style fantasy of, suddenly you're this awesome adult, right? Part of the problem is that Asher Angel is now - you know, he's 18 when this film was made. He looks a little older. Zachary Levi is now in his 40s. And you're starting to get this thing of, like, an adult living out the fantasy of being an older adult.


THOMPSON: It doesn't really quite - the magic of it isn't as much there, just in part due to the natural fact of these actors aging beyond where this story wants them to be. I found that created a little more of a disconnect that I didn't have watching the first film. It also kind of - as you said, Glen, there's a little bit of a tendency to underline every joke. There is a really, really blatant product placement in this film.

WELDON: Yes, there is.

THOMPSON: You'll know it when you see it. They construct a couple of jokes around that product placement, and they manage to recite the slogan of the product they are placing as a joke. And you're like, OK, guys. And then, like, a minute and a half later, they repeat it again.

WELDON: Yeah. Yeah.

THOMPSON: And it's just a perfect example of - like, if you just hadn't done that joke the first time...

WELDON: It would pay off.

THOMPSON: ...The joke...


THOMPSON: ...When you repeated it, would have paid off and would have been funnier and would have been worth this really blatant product placement. But there is just this tendency of - like, the movie seems to fall in love with every joke so much that it repeats it three times.


THOMPSON: And I didn't feel like the first film did that as much.

WELDON: I think what you're speaking to there is that the fuel mixture is off. The first movie was really equal parts Angel and Levi. Here, Angel gets maybe five minutes of screen time. It's all Levi all the time. And it is the one joke. In the first film, it didn't matter to me that Levi as an actor was making no attempt for his super Billy performance to even vaguely gesture toward anything that Asher Angel was doing as teenage Billy for a very nerdy reason - because for the first 40 years of this character in the comics, the notion that he was actually Billy grown up was not a thing.

Captain Marvel, as we called him back then because we could and now we can't because lawyers - but Captain Marvel was just this other dude who shows up. And nobody questioned it because nobody looked that deeply into comics back then. And then in the '80s, they introduced this idea that this hero is actually Billy grown up, you know, with a child's brain in a man's body.

I just don't get that here. And you're right. It's compounded here, which is one reason I think they kind of sidelined Asher Angel. I think it's very possible that at some point Adam Brody took Jack Dylan Grazer - they both play Freddy - out for a beer to discuss, what's your approach, dude? - because they kind of vibe. Brody is just Freddy without the nerdy shtick. But if Levi and Angel ever sat down together, there is no evidence on screen. I don't believe for a second...


WELDON: ...That Levi is Angel in a man's body because - in part because Angel is Angel in a man's body now, as you say. And he's not playing a man-boy. He's playing a man-toddler. He's playing an idiot that the character of Asher Angel isn't.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And, man, I mean, it is a steep acting challenge - right? - to play a character through the prism of another character. That is a difficult thing. We've certainly seen actors pull it off in different movies and TV shows. As you say, they don't really attempt that here. And so, you know, they're doing a good enough job with their exposition that it's - at least you're able to follow who's who. Like you say, I think the fuel mixture is off. And speaking of the fuel mixture, we're getting a lot of characters here, and we're getting new characters. We're getting Helen Mirren. We're getting Lucy Liu. We're getting Rachel Zegler. How did the introduction of these new characters work for you?

WELDON: I mean, it just seemed kind of by the numbers, right? These are just superhero movie villains. And, you know, it's Helen Mirren, and she can bring some gravitas to any damn thing even if she's sitting at a cheesesteak place and getting her butt handed to her or handing somebody else their butt. Yeah, I just thought it was all - you know, nobody really scintillated for me. Nobody stood out. I just thought, Lucy Liu is playing what - the character that Lucy Liu would play if she was an ancient god. And Rachel Zegler is bringing this kind of earnestness, this sweetness, which is supposed to go well with the Freddy Freeman character. I don't know. Nothing popped for me. How about with you - any character stand out?

THOMPSON: I like the energy that Rachel Zegler is giving...


THOMPSON: ...To this role. I feel like what Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu are doing is pretty boilerplate. We've certainly seen very similar villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I didn't feel any particular surprise in the Mirren or the Liu performances, but I did kind of like the energy that Zegler was bringing.

WELDON: And this is a very nerdy point, but I'm going to make it 'cause I am, after all, me. One of the things that really nagged me in the first film is how dumb Zachary Levi's character as the hero is because, canonically, Shazam is an acronym. He's supposed to have the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. Check, check, check, check, check - except for wisdom of Solomon. That's a mishmash of mythologies and pantheons there, I realize. But, like, wisdom of Solomon - this guy is an idiot. That is finally in this film addressed here for those who have been crying out for it, as I have.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: So points to that, points to finally addressing that what was a monumental oversight, I think, in the first film.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And they managed to wring a few cute jokes out of that. I got to say, one of the things that I have found moving about this franchise is kind of bringing in the idea of chosen family and found family. And I did find a couple of the scenes with the foster family to be very moving and sweet. And there is a scene kind of late in this film where I found myself having a pretty strong emotional reaction in a movie that otherwise (laughter) is not serving strong emotional reactions. I did like that element of it, and I hope that assuming they kind of continue this franchise - and I think we can agree the DC movie universe is in a certain amount of flux.

WELDON: Yeah, definitely.

THOMPSON: If they continue down this road, I hope they keep leaning into that 'cause I think that stuff is really sweet.

WELDON: I did miss the foster family stuff. There was much less of it in this film. You're right.

THOMPSON: All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. Up next - what is making us happy this week.

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what is making us happy this week. Glen Weldon, what's making you happy this week, buddy?

WELDON: "Inside" is a film that's in theaters now in limited release. It stars Willem Dafoe as an art thief who gets trapped inside this amazing high-tech penthouse apartment that's filled with all these priceless works of art when he trips the alarm. So the film, the entire film is just him, just Dafoe on screen for 105 minutes, minus a dream sequence or two. And he's there trying to figure out how to get out, as the days pass, and his food and water run out, and the temperature controls in the apartment start going nuts. Dafoe - it's Dafoe. He's always fascinating to watch. He makes big choices. And here he's playing someone who gets increasingly desperate and increasingly unhinged as the days pass.

And I read some reviews from folks who aren't willing to go on this journey. And that's fair. I mean, understand you will feel those days pass. You will feel the weight of them. That is the entire point. And as it goes on, the film starts to play with notions of art and life and death and whatever might lie beyond it. It is a very small film with great big ideas. And Dafoe really holds your attention, holds the screen. And so if you're up for it - and not everyone will be - it is definitely worth seeking out. That is "Inside," in theaters now.

THOMPSON: Well, if I'm going to spend 105 minutes with one actor, Willem Dafoe would not be a bad choice.

WELDON: Absolutely. Right?

THOMPSON: Nice. All right. Well, what is making me happy is the long-awaited new season of Louder Than a Riot, an NPR music podcast about the intersection of hip-hop and incarceration in America. Obviously, I am biased. These are my colleagues. These are my friends. But this is a phenomenal show. Season 1 took this fascinating deep dive into the way that hip-hop lyrics can be used as evidence in criminal cases. It reported news. It made news. It won awards. It generally made us proud and made us very excited about Season 2. The first episode of Season 2 dropped this Thursday, and it goes even deeper. I maybe already even like it more. It starts with the trial of Tory Lanez, who was convicted of shooting Megan Thee Stallion, uses that trial as a jumping-off point into some kind of surprising directions.

It examines hip-hop's relationship with women and, I think, as the season progresses, more and more with queer people. Listening to that first episode, it's amazing how much this show sounds so effortless and conversational. Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael are the hosts, and they talk to each other and a producer, Gabby Bulgarelli, who is great here. They're untangling extremely complex ideas about race and gender, fandom, toxicity and so much more in a way that feels effortless but clearly is not effortless. So much reporting and editing and hosting talent went into making this show great. I just savored that first episode. I can't wait to hear more each week. That's Louder Than a Riot from several of my smartest pals at NPR Music. I am so happy to hear their hard work out in the world. And that is what is making me happy this week.

If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. Glen Weldon, thanks so much for being here.

WELDON: Thank you, pal.

THOMPSON: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all next week.


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