Sequels, by their very nature, are more. Whatever the original had, just add more, seems to be the rule. Even more words in the title — how often is the title of a sequel shorter than the original?
And so, exactly four years after the original DC superhero picture “Shazam!” amazed at its clever combination of innocence and silliness and enough intelligence to temper the inevitable ridiculousness of the plot, we have “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” It brings five times the title word, more action, more villains, more monsters and more stars — for example, Oscar winner Helen Mirren.
But no more charm. The sequel, again directed by David F. Sandberg, feels less funny, less fresh, less moving. (At two hours and 10 minutes, it’s actually two minutes shorter than the original, but it doesn’t feel shorter).
In its favor, however, are a few elements that lent the original its pleasures, especially Zachary Levi and his goofy (if perhaps more frenetic) attempts to play a young adult in a superhero body, and Jack Dylan Grazer as a quick-witted, always-thinking best eye (and stepbrother) Freddy — this time with a love interest in the attractive Rachel Zegler. It also cleverly casts the colorless villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who is apparently still in that solitary cell.
First, a plot refresh. We’re back in Philadelphia with teenage hero Billy Batson (Asher Angel), the foster kid who in the original was given magical powers by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and learned that the word “Shazam!” turned him into a super hero (Levi). But now, his foster family (well, just the brothers) has joined the superhero business.
It’s not going well though. The group is known in the City of Brotherly Love as the “Philadelphia Fiascos”, due to their frequent youthful mistakes. We know that teenagers only have partially developed brains, right? No matter how many buses or train cars they can hold with one hand.
And there’s a big new baddie to fight – actually three, the ancient Daughters of Atlas, arriving in the human world to reclaim their stolen magic.
It turns out that the fabled staff of the gods, broken by Billy/Sazam at the end of the first film, is in a museum, and let’s just say the visitors aren’t in for a good day when two daughters of Atlas—Hespera and Calypso—show up ready to exterminate anyone in their way. They are soon revealed to be Mirren and Lucy Liu, adding a real evil goddess to the proceedings.
Meanwhile, Billy/Shazam is in a therapy session, saying he feels like a fraud. (He’s accidentally been to a pediatrician, but imposter syndrome isn’t hard to diagnose.) Soon, though, he and his brothers are called upon to save the town from a collapsing bridge.
The funniest parts of “Shazam!” and now its sequel includes the overlap between teenage-human and superhero life. Witness the secret teen-designed lair, complete with all the Skittles and other junk food anyone could want (Skittles will play a key role at one point.) There, we also learn what each of the siblings is up to at the moment. The eldest, Mary, who studies organic chemistry for fun, aches for college despite the superhero life. And Freddy wants to forge his own identity.
But Billy, abandoned by his parents as a child, wants family unity at all costs. Mary tries to tell him that nothing lasts forever — plus, he’ll be 18 soon and the checks to his foster parents will stop coming. And then what? (Do you think we’ll get a scene later where someone assures him that family will last forever?)
Meanwhile, the Daughters of Atlas, accompanied by a great old dragon and some other monsters, are on the warpath. Where is the third, you ask? Ah, he disguises himself as a human, and has taken a shine to Freddy, who can’t believe his luck.
That’s all you need to know to understand the action. And there are many. Still, the best moments are when the original’s wit shines through – like when Hespera (Mirren) reads aloud a letter dictated by the young superheroes into a magical pen that, like a smartphone, picks up the foreign dialogue, meaning it’s seriously repeating itself. : “Does anyone else want a Gatorade?” (I wish Mirren — and Liu, too — had more such comedic moments.)
The action, filled with CGI battles, could fatally weigh the film down if it weren’t for Levi, who brings the agility of a musical theater performer (do you ever see him singing while doing a cartwheel on Broadway? ) and Grazer, a bit older but still irritable, not to say lonely (“We can’t let her die, she told me sweetie!”).
Angel still makes an attractive teenage Billy, and Hunshu has a charming fashion moment. The family is all back, and stepmom Rosa at least gets one good line amid apocalyptic disaster: “I’m not entirely sure how to parent here.”
Oh wait, we forgot the unicorns!
Did we need a dragon AND unicorns? Well, of course we did, because in a sequel, there’s always more.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” a New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for action and violence sequences and language.” Performance duration: 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be unsuitable for children under 13 years of age.