DC is having an identity crisis
Shazam 2also known Shazam: Wrath of the Gods, has the distinct taste of too many cooks in the kitchen. That’s right, superhero movies always have a thousand cooks in the kitchen, but this one in particular feels like a confused college student trying on different identities for a semester. Which is a shame because the first Shazam is probably my favorite superhero movie of the last decade. The sequel is like watching a good friend come back from studying abroad with an affected accent you can’t talk him out of.
Shazam 2 has the occasional sparkle of it Shazam Magic, especially in the early days. It’s nowhere near the insult to his predecessor that, say, kick ass 2 was to Excellent. Part of the beauty of Shazam was that it really felt like a movie aimed at 10- or 11-year-olds, in stark contrast to Marvel’s approach, which was aimed at bottle-fed adults. Shazam! was rendered in primary colors and was goofy at times (the villains were the seven deadly sins!), but it was a direct appeal to actual human emotions rather than a sacrifice to the gods of continuity. If there’s one aspect of superhero movies that I’m not quite tired of, it’s that moment when the hero discovers their powers – a storyline Shazam! performed better than anything since Sam Raimi’s first Spiderman Movie.
Not only that, he was a foster child (Billy Batson played by Asher Angel-turned-Zach Levi), not a descendant of an ancient lineage of demigods (how I love a superhero storyline that doesn’t involve a monarchy). and instead of becoming part of a pseudo-state, supranational agency charged with protecting the rabble, the last fight seemed like a kind of metaphor for the internal struggle to be a less shitty person. And all wrapped up in a love story about a found family. again i love Shazam!
Now Shazam is back, but in exchange for being granted a sequel, the gods of continuity want their pound of flesh. The plot wrath of the gods‘ Authors (Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan) managed to be both overly simplistic and painfully convoluted. There’s something sweet about these characters’ story, but every time they try to scale it into a broader, connected universe mythology, it becomes this hideous hybrid beast, like a sitcom sprouting malignant tumors of naked commerce. I mean it in all seriousness when I say that a climax in Shazam 2 features an actual Skittles commercial, complete with a little girl yelling “taste the rainbow!”
Billy Batson himself is battling “impostor syndrome” (could I just have a break from thinker-ready pop psychology terms, please?) separate ways. Meanwhile, the disabled Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer, probably the stronger actor of the two and also Brian Grazer’s nephew) must deal with the humiliation of having to maintain his identity as a disabled high schooler, even as he transforms himself into a superhero (played by the ever-lovable Adam Brody). Billy explains all of those insecurities and how they stem from being an orphan abandoned by his mother and gifted superpowers from a dying wizard in a scene that seems to strike just the right balance between endearing cheekiness and sickening postmodernism .
It’s only when the big villains show up that the film kind of falls apart. These villains come in the form of the daughters of Atlas (the actual Greek deity Atlas), who are pissed that the Djimon Hounsou wizard stole their powers and gave them to a child. Now they have come to earth to get her back and also to regain “the seed of life” and to restore the kingdom of God they love. As it was inside Thor: Love and ThunderPitting gods against humans is a whole can of worms that a superhero movie doesn’t have the time or nuance to really deal with. Why does commerce, cornering itself, keep trying to reinvent religion?
So not only do the Shazam kids have to fight the gods to defend the humans, it turns out there’s some sort of sibling rivalry in the Atlas household as well. The most personable sister, Anthea (Rachel Zegler), presents herself as a high school kid and doubles as Freddy’s love interest. The most vengeful sister, Kalypso, wants to punish humanity and is played by Lucy Liu, which is a big problem because Kalypso screams a lot, and while I enjoy Lucy Liu in most contexts, her intensely nasal, screaming voice sandpapers mine ear drums. There’s also another sister, played by Helen Mirren, who falls somewhere in between the other two.
Meanwhile, the “seeds of life” also grow deadly roots that manifest mythical villains (cyclops, minotaur…) stomping around killing people. The Sami are also guarded by a giant wooden dragon that Calypso rides. “Hey Khaleesi!” Shazam yells at her once.
You can tell the writers lash out when they start using pop culture references like drywall putty (which is generally how “humor” works in the MCU). To be more specific, the character storyline between the foster family (which has potential) doesn’t really connect at all with the larger mythological conflict, which is like someone put every crappy superhero movie in a blender. Shazam is so focused on being something else that it loses what it really is had (real emotions!).
There is a tension within DC that has shown up in the last suicide squad (yes there were two) Black Adamand now Shazam 2, between the anti-Marvel (where it occasionally shows off brilliant flashes) and a kind of poor man’s Marvel, which is a terrible thing for anything. This tension is greater than ever wrath of the godsis the half kids family superhero movie and half disastrous wannabe Marvel that plays like a fan fiction subuniverse of wonder woman (Don’t even ask, man).
If I could take you beyond the spoiler veil here for a moment (HOLD HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ SPOILERS)…
…nothing illustrated Shazam 2‘s identity crisis as the post-credits scene. This post-credits sequence stars Jennifer Holland and Steve Agee, and she’s trying to follow up Shazama clever superhero movie for kids, with peacemaker, an R-rated HBO series. Is there a good reason for the combination of these two qualities? What if you just made two good things that are separate?
Instead, we see these characters trying to recruit Shazam for The Justice Society (which you probably don’t remember because the subplot in it backfired Black Adam). Shazam makes a big quip about how the Justice League and Justice Society should probably have different words so people don’t get them confused. He pulls out his cell phone and starts googling synonyms. The “button” of the scene is that it sets up “The Avengers Society”. Got it? Because The Avengers! Is Shazam Dead Pool Now? It all feels so pathetic.
Vince Mancini is there Twitter. You can see his review archive here.
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