Producer: Peter Safran   Director: David F. Sandberg   Screenplay: Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan   Cast:  Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Rachel Zegler, Adam Brody, Grace Caroline Curry, Ross Butler, Meagan Good, Ian Chen, Faithe Herman, D.J. Cotrona, Jovan Armand, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, P.J. Byrne, Lucy Liu, Djimon Hounsou and Helen Mirren    Distributor: Warner Bros

Grade: C

When David F. Sandberg’s “Shazam!,” based on the DC comics series, came out in 2019, it was a pleasant surprise.  Among bloated, pompous superhero movies, it stood out for its goofy comic-book sensibility, its refusal to take itself seriously, and despite a last-act turn to CGI excess, its relative modesty.  In short, in was an amusing lark, targeted at younger fans rather than committed fanboys.

The inevitable sequel, subtitled “Fury of the Gods,” tries for a similar vibe, but falls far short of the goal.  An uneasy mixture of YA superhero flick, warmhearted family movie, and effects-laden action picture, it proves once again that more does not translate to better. 

Like the first movie (at least in its last act), “Fury” is an ensemble superhero effort.  The lead hero is again Shazam (Zachary Levi), the spandex-suited muscle-man who’s the alter-ego of teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel), endowed with his magical powers by the Ancient Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) but still left with the teen’s immature, insecure personality.  But at the close of the first film in order to save the day he shared his powers with the fellow youngsters in the foster-home run by likable couple Rosa and Victor Vásquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). 

That means that there’s a corps of teens who can morph into super-powered Shazam-ites.  The oldest is Mary (played in both guises by Grace Caroline Curry, who was billed as Grace Fulton in the first film, in which Michelle Borth played the transformed version).  Then there’s physically disabled Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, though Adam Brody takes over in his superhero form); Eugene (Ian Chen, who morphs into Ross Butler); Darla (Faithe Herman, whose morphed form is played by Meagan Good); and Pedro (Jovan Armand, whose superhero version is played by D.J. Cotrona).  In an opening set-piece they all engage in the rescue of people trapped on a collapsing bridge, but since they fail to save the structure itself, they’re dubbed the “Philadelphia Fiascos” by unimpressed locals.

But the detractors come to feel differently when they need protection from a trio of ancient Greek deities, the daughters of Atlas—Kalypso (Lucy Liu), Anthea (Rachel Zegler) and Hespera (unbelievably, Helen Mirren)—who had been exiled for millennia but escaped, captured the Wizard, and managed to take possession of his magic staff, broken by Shazam in the first picture, with which they intend to defeat his champions, enslave or destroy humanity, and rule the world.  They capture Freddy through a ruse, dimorph most of the team, and raise up a bevy of monsters—a CGI dragon and a bunch of other ugly critters that look as though they were modeled on Ray Harryhausen’s old stop-motion beasties.  Fortunately Shazam proves a worthy champion, his comrades fight on despite being deprived of their powers, and two of the daughters of Atlas have second thoughts about their destructive plan.

There are some laughs in “Fury of the Gods”—an opening session involving P.J. Byrne as a pediatrician is clever, Hounsou proves adept at delivering the Wizard’s barbs, and Glazer remains, as he was in the previous movie, a comic sparkplug as geeky Freddy.  (Brody’s preening complements his nerdiness nicely.)

But much of the humor is lackluster and juvenile, like a bit involving Skittles and unicorns that feels stolen directly from the Reese’s Pieces gag from “E.T.”  And for all his energy, Levi’s mugging is on overdrive, and comes off more desperate than engaging.  The rest of the Shazam crew are a fairly bland bunch, and while Zegler exhibits some of the charm she showed in her “West Side Story” debut, neither Liu nor Mirren does anything distinctive.  There’s an appearance by a DCU star—who shall not be revealed here—toward the close (and it’s not like the silly headless shot of Superman at the end of the first movie, which is in fact ridiculed earlier), but it doesn’t amount to much apart from another opportunity to focus on Billy’s teen hormones.   

The picture also sometimes goes off the rails in terms of action violence.  One character is compelled to jump off a roof to his death, and when the Harryhausen-like critters appear, they’re shown battering some humans pretty badly.  It might be a bit much for very young viewers.  (On the other hand, the two bullies who mistreat Freddy toward the start seem to get off unscathed; surely they deserve some retribution.)  The effects, moreover, aren’t exactly top-grade, though otherwise the technical side of things—Paul Kirby’s production design, Gyula Pados’ cinematography, Michel Aller’s editing—passes muster.  Christophe Beck’s score is predictably overblown.

One might compare “Fury of the Gods” to the “Percy Jackson” movies of a decade or so ago; that series wasn’t terrible, but it couldn’t get past two installments (though it’s now spawning a streaming series), and despite a couple of closing-credit added scenes that point to continuation of the “Shazam!” franchise, it might not be able to, either. 

But the first movie was fun.