'Shazam! Fury of the Gods' review: It turns up the volume, without fidelity The sequel to the 2019 film that starred Zachary Levi as the adult superhero persona of a lonely teen goes bigger. And goofier. But the fuel mixture's off and Levi's one-note performance grates.


'Shazam! Fury of the Gods' is a near myth

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Another big-budget comic book adaptation hits theaters today, continuing the story of a young foster kid named Billy Batson who can transform into a superhero just by speaking a magic word.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Shazam.

KELLY: "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods." It's the follow-up to 2019's "Shazam!," which starred Asher Angel as teenage Billy and Zachary Levi as Billy's adult, superpowered self. Well, both actors are back for the sequel, which sees the hero and his family tangling with goddesses played by Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren.


HELEN MIRREN: (As Hespera) We will annihilate everything. The champions of this realm can do nothing to stop us.

KELLY: Glen Weldon is here with his take, NPR's resident superhero and host of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Glen, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Thanks - always great to be here.

KELLY: I want to go back to when the original "Shazam!" came out. We said that was 2019, and it seemed like this departure from all these really dark takes on superheroes that - you know, movies like "Man Of Steel" and "Batman V. Superman." It was, like, a superhero actually having fun being a superhero. Does the new "Shazam!" continue in that vein?

WELDON: Oh, yeah. It does to a fault, though, I'd say. You know, I just went back and read my review of that first film, and I was just so happy that we had finally a superhero movie that embraced whimsy and all the essential goofiness of the comics that I loved, which made sense for this particular character, whom we used to call Captain Marvel but we can't now because of lawyers. But he was always about wish fulfillment. It's a kid who says a magic word and gets powers, right? And for many years, he was the most popular superhero on the planet. His comics way outsold Superman, Batman, all the rest. And in that first movie, Zachary Levi played him like a kid in a superpowered body. But I happened to notice that Zachary Levi didn't seem to be making any attempt to tie his performance to anything that Asher Angel was doing as teenage Billy even though they were ostensibly playing the same character. But I didn't care. I let it go because, you know, the movie was fun. I now realize I shouldn't have let it go.

KELLY: And I was looking at some of the early reviews that say this new "Shazam!" goes bigger than the first one, which - I mean, that's kind of what people want from a superhero movie.


KELLY: Right? Go bigger.

WELDON: Yeah, well, in this case, goofier, too. They turn up the volume on the goofiness. They turn up the volume on everything. You know, so you get more characters, more villains, more monsters, more buildings getting reduced to rubble and rebar in my beloved hometown of Philly, which is played here on screen by Atlanta. But whenever you...

KELLY: My hometown.

WELDON: Yes, of course. But whenever you crank the volume, you get distortion. Or let me put that another way. The fuel mixture of this thing is way off. So the first film was divided relatively equally between Angel's teen Billy and Levi's adult super Billy. But this time out, teen Billy is barely in this thing. It's all Levi all the time, which wouldn't be an issue except for the fact that - what Levi chooses to do with all that screen time, which is to make, Mary Louise, the biggest, the schtickiest (ph), the sweatiest choices he can. He is just mugging his way through this thing.


ZACHARY LEVI: (As Billy Batson) Look. I might not have as much experience as you because I'm not super-old like you, but I've seen all of the "Fast And The Furious" movies, lady. It's all about family. Family - guys, that was the signal.

WELDON: And he's gone so big that the other actors on screen with him, even Helen freaking Mirren, are just left stranded. You know, they're just talking to themselves.

KELLY: That's so interesting because it seemed like in the first film, people really liked what Zachary Levi did with the character. Like...


KELLY: You said yourself you liked it.

WELDON: Yeah. But in that first film, remember; he was one ingredient in a recipe. As we say on Pop Culture Happy Hour, he was the cilantro. But this movie is just a big bowl of cilantro, right? So - and also, more importantly, by removing Angel's teen Billy from the equation, you just fundamentally break the character. If we never see him as a kid, the whole wish fulfillment aspect is gone. And it becomes even more apparent that Levi is out here doing his own thing, and the notion that he and Asher Angel are playing the same character becomes the least believable thing in a movie that also features, you know, a unicorn impaling a Cyclops and Dame Helen freaking Mirren grabbing a cheesesteak.

KELLY: That sounds like a thumb on the tepid to leaning down scale, Glen.

WELDON: I'm afraid so, yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. Glen Weldon - he is host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, and "Shazam! Fury Of The Gods" is in theaters now. Glen, shazam. Thank you.

WELDON: Shazam to you.


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