There’s an exasperating trend in superhero movies that has reached the end of its shelf life and needs to be chucked. Back in the 2010s, a light touch seemed fresh and funny, with quippy, ironic dialogue popularized by Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” that felt revolutionary, and snarky, motor-mouthed performances from stars like Ryan Reynolds in “Deadpool” that were downright radical. But one whiff of the “Shazam!” sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and you’ll find that this overly jokey approach is well past its expiration date.
The D.C. movie is exceedingly grating, labored and annoying, and that’s in large part due to star Zachary Levi’s utterly confounding performance as Shazam, the superhero alter ego of teenage Billy Batson (Asher Angel).
In 2019’s “Shazam!,” also directed by David F. Sandberg, there was something rather charming about Levi’s boyish performance, a grown man playing Superman with all the aw shucks wonder of a teenager. In the four years hence, the shtick has grown old, or Levi is simply laying it on too thick, adopting a vaguely urban accent, speech peppered with tired slang (“trippin’”) and an extra-randy attitude.
The biggest problem with his performance is that it’s completely out of step with that of his younger counterpart, which was also an issue in the first film. Angel’s Billy is a more grounded, even anxious, teenager, worrying about his large, multicultural foster family and his role in it as he gets older. When he Shazams into Shazam, thanks to the magic granted him by a wizened wizard (Djimon Hounsou), the Levi version of Billy suddenly becomes bratty, arrogant and mouthy.
Levi’s performance may be the crown jewel of nonsense swirling at the center of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” but the film around it doesn’t help matters. It is ugly, noisy and poorly written (the script is by Henry Gayden and “Fast & Furious” writer Chris Morgan), which is a shame, because director Sandberg has churned out some reliably inspired genre gems, like “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation.” But “Fury of the Gods,” which boasts an almost laughably random cast (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler play a trio of goddess sisters, the daughters of Atlas), is excruciating.
We know this film is set in Philadelphia only because Shazam and his superhero pals have been dubbed “The Philadelphia Fiascos,” and Liu’s Kalypso plants a golden apple that sprouts mythological beasts in the middle of Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies play. A Wolf Blitzer chyron reading, “Philadelphia trapped under strange dome,” is the only true laugh of the movie, an unintentional one at that.
Despite these references, there is no sense of place — the action mostly takes place during a strangely golden-hued magic hour on top of buildings, and there’s a portal to a green-screen nightmare mythical realm where the goddess sisters do their evil business. Visually, it is a mess, with computer-generated imagery that looks straight out of a CW show. Everything is flat and framed in medium shots, missing the dark cityscape aesthetic of the first film, which jived with the ethos of modern mythology.
The juvenile tone, focus on a family-friendly story and painfully explicated themes and lessons clearly indicate that this film is aimed at a younger audience. But just because this movie is for kids doesn’t mean it has to be this bad. It may be a shoddily made Skittles ad masquerading as a superhero riff, but it’s Levi’s performance that sends it into the stratosphere of cringe. Here’s hoping this is not only Shazam’s last outing but the nail in the coffin of the smarmy superhero as well.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’
Rated: PG-13, for sequences of action and violence, and language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Starts March 17 in general release