A lot has happened – and changed – since 2019, when David F. Sandburg made a decent job of turning C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel into ‘a superhero version of Big’ by casting Asher Angel as teen orphan Billy Batson and Zachary Levi as his grown-up bodied super alternate identity. Like Dr Strange, Shazam! had a post-credits tag suggesting a sequel outline that the eventual follow-up hasn’t gone with … which must really irk Mark Strong, who has twice been set up as a big part of a DC sequel story (he was Sinestro in the flop Green Lantern) and then sidelined (except for a witty callback for the patient, though I’m starting to think we’re never getting that Mr Mind movie trufans yearn for).
First off, this arrives four years after the first film with two years story time having passed – a crucial issue for a film series with key young participants visibly ageing out of their roles, though this time Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman (superheroic alter ego Adam Brody) gets more to do than Angel’s Billy, even scoring a sort of love interest (Rachel Zegler) while Billy has inappropriate but funny fantasies about sort-of-in-the-same-mythological-arena Wonder Woman (seldom a comics item because they were owned by separate companies in their great days and are both under complex legal injunctures about use and abuse of the properties). And it also comes along after yet another reboot for DC’s movie enterprises, with some tweaks to suggest there might be a place for Shazam! in the James Gunn version of the universe though Black Adam (which ought to tie in since BA is basically Evil Shazam!) and its Superman tag are put on a shelf.
The issue of what the heroic version of Billy is called is raised – someone even suggests ‘Captain Marvel’, which must have involved complex negotiations and payback for the Superman joke in The Eternals – and eventually settled, though with the complication that he can’t introduce himself without changing identities. The plot is gubbins, of course, with the Daughters of Atlas – Hespera (Helen Mirren, very dry) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu, stuck with the dud lines) – out to reclaim the power of the gods (though Solomon wasn’t one – not that you could expect that sort of nit-picking from 1940s comics writing) from the Shazam team (aka ‘the Philly Fiascos’, since they have carried out their superheroics in somewhat clumsy manner) by doing stuff involving turning tourists to sand in Greece, retrieving a golden apple from the Rock of Eternity, getting the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to fix a staff broken in the climax of the earliefilm), unleashing mythological monsters (including some Harryhausen homages) and putting Philadelphia under a Stephen King-like dome of doom.
The kids have their individual issues and get and lose powers repetitively in a padded mid-section, before it gets into spectacular business for a crowd-pleasing big action finale well up on recent mid-level superheroic fare from DC or the MCU but still more noisy and flashy than epic. It’s likeable, witty in an understated throwaway manner (‘I don’t know how many manticores I can run over with this van’) and makes for a good evening out, but I miss the heart (and the trace elements of personal darkness and triumph) of the earlier film, which was more about Billy finding a foster family than taking down superpowered baddies. Levi, who looks weirdly like Fred MacMurray (the original model for Beck’s Captain), has a bit too much goofing to do, and it’s a point well taken when someone on the team suggests he should use ‘the wisdom of Solomon’ a bit more often. Faithe Herman and Meagan Good are still MVPs as Darla Dudley.