‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ Review: CGI Whizbang Obscures Heartfelt Story

The big blockbuster action movie comes across as perfunctory and soulless

Warner Bros.

In the pantheon of DC superhero movies, David F. Sandberg’s “Shazam!” still stands out as something special: an emotional, character-driven film with good humor and an actual point to make that never let flashy spectacle get in the way of telling a wonderful, personal story.

It would be nice to report that the sequel, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” follows in that tradition. Instead, the best parts of this new movie are drowned out by pointless CGI monsters and tedious action sequences. What worked before still works now, it’s just that now it’s got a whole lot of bland blockbuster pabulum to compete with. It’s as though the world’s greatest restaurant was tucked away at the end of a long, flashy boulevard full of fast food joints, so by the time you get there you’re too full of tasteless junk to enjoy it.

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” reunites us with the Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, but if he had any less screen time it would technically qualify as a cameo. He spends the majority of the movie in his superhero form, played by Zachary Levi, who is struggling with abandonment issues and imposter syndrome. Billy is getting older and about to be kicked out of the foster system. He doesn’t want to leave his new family, and not just because all his siblings are also magical superbeings. He’s finally found a place where people love him and he’s terrified of losing it.

Meanwhile, the ancient gods Hespera, played by Helen Mirren, and Kalypso, played by Lucy Liu, have returned to Earth in search of the magical staff Billy broke at the end of the last movie. It turns out that for thousands of years the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) had been using the staff to keep gods and magic out of the mortal realm, and now that it’s broken those threats can come back. (All of this would probably come as quite a shock to Wonder Woman and the Suicide Squad, since they’ve been dealing with magical superthreats and gods for a while now.)

Hespera and Kalypso want their magic back, but most of it is being shared by Billy Batson and his siblings. Although they save a lot of lives, their inexperience and immaturity leaves such extensive property damage that the news has dubbed them “The Philadelphia Fiascos,” and Billy’s foster brother and best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is spending more and more time pursuing his own superhero solo career and wooing a new girl at school named Ann, played by Rachel Zegler (“West Side Story”). The rest of the Shazam! kids would rather be playing video games or going to college. They’re just kids, after all.

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” does an excellent job of remembering that its heroes can be childlike and ridiculous, and watching these kids in adult bodies “Goonies” their way through formulaic scenes that typical adult heroes would tackle more severely is a good, old-fashioned hoot. There’s a genuine sense of wonder to the way they interact with a magical fountain pen named Steve, which delivers exposition and takes dictation a little too accurately, giving us comical sequences where Helen Mirren has to read a bunch of adolescent nonsense just to get to the next plot point. These are the moments that only “Shazam!” films can give us.

Whenever “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” focuses on comedy and character it’s fabulous, but sometimes it gets distracted in favor of generic superhero stuff. The opening of the film finds Hespera and Kalypso wreaking havoc in a museum as they pull off a heist. It’s all very chaotic, like a PG-13 version of the epic opening sequence from “Wishmaster.” But it’s not very interesting because we don’t know who they are or why we should care, and the movie doesn’t bother telling us for a long time.

It isn’t until about halfway through that Hespera finally gets a moment to sit down and explain her motivations. Until then the main plot of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” doesn’t have any impact at all. And frankly, the scene where Hespera explains her backstory in front of a cheesesteak sandwich is the best part of this movie. She lays out, clearly and emotionally, what’s at stake for her and her sisters and why the seemingly innocent heroes are — to these gods, at least — the real bad guys. She’s played by Helen Mirren, too, so you believe every word of it.

It’s just too little, too late. Eventually “Fury of the Gods” settles into a giant climax where CGI monsters run amok in Philadelphia and the only way to stop them involves lots of Skittles and heroically declaring “Taste the rainbow,” which is about as embarrassing as the scene in “Power Rangers” where Elizabeth Banks breaks into a Krispy Kreme and eats a donut while the world burns. Except there’s no camp to be found in the Skittles version. Those are, apparently, just really great Skittles and thank goodness — and thank the makers of Skittles candy, Mars, Inc.! — that these delights were invented, and are delicious, and can be purchased in the lobby as you leave.

It would be nice to report that at least the CGI monsters look nice, but they’re unconvincing, frequently weightless, and make one yearn for the heyday of Ray Harryhausen, back when a handful of stop-motion skeletons were infinitely more threatening than this army of virtual manticores. The sense of wonder the Shazam! kids experience looking at a magic fountain pen is conspicuously absent when they’re looking at giant mythical beasts right out of a storybook. It’s as if the movie is slightly embarrassed by its own creations and doesn’t want us to look too closely at them. Even the hero shots don’t frame these CGI beasts very well.

It’s nothing less than astounding to discover that the massive amount of money and effort that went into realizing these showstopper action sequences in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” can’t hold a candle to a scene where Helen Mirren discusses her feelings and Asher Angel has a heart to heart with his foster mom. The real magic in these movies is the characters. It’s a family film about family drama and the superhero elements are best whenever they’re supporting that realistic drama and earnest comedy.

But when “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” tries to look like a big blockbuster action movie it comes across as perfunctory and soulless. The fury signifies nothing. The heart is where this movie’s home is.