'Shazam! Fury of the Gods' review: Zachary Levi's plucky man-child leads joyous superfamily sequel

Brian Truitt

The DC superhero movie universe is going through an existential crisis under new management, with Henry Cavill's Superman gone and Dwayne Johnson's Black Adam in limbo. The sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” proves Zachary Levi’s young-at-heart do-gooder needs to stick around for a while.

A fun, kid-friendly follow-up to director David F. Sandberg’s 2019 charmer, the “Shazam” sequel (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday) continues the story of teenage foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) – who's given otherworldly abilities by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and turned into a buff adult (Levi) – and his Philadelphia family when they’re threatened by a trio of powerful Greek goddesses (Lucy Liu, Helen Mirren and Rachel Zegler).

“Fury” piles on the mythos, monsters and magic, a smidge too heavily at times, but stays grounded, thanks to its earnestly goofy main man.

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Shazam (Zachary Levi, center) leads his family of superheroes – Eugene (Ross Butler), Freddy (Adam Brody), Mary (Grace Caroline Currey), Darla (Meagan Good) and Pedro (D.J. Cotrona) – against a new threat in "Shazam! Fury of the Gods."

The first “Shazam” ends with Billy sharing his power with his five foster brothers and sisters, so everyone transforms into a “swole” version of themselves when they yell, “Shazam!” Some years have passed, and the sequel finds the youngsters doing their best to help the city but navigating as many failures as successes. (The media even labels them the “Philly Fiascoes.”)

Compounding the pressures on Billy is the fact that he’s turning 18 in a few months when he’ll technically age out of the foster system. That, plus his siblings’ interests in things other than superheroing, lead Billy to worry about being on his own again.

Also not helping matters: the arrival of the Daughters of Atlas. In the climactic battle of the 2019 film, Billy snapped a magical staff in two, which broke a barrier between worlds and now allows Hespera (Mirren) and Kalypso (Liu) to come to Earth. They fix the weapon, aim to take the heroes’ powers and want to rule mankind, yet their sister Anthea (Zegler) isn’t as imperious – and takes a liking to Billy’s bro Freddy (played by Jack Dylan Grazer as a teen and by Adam Brody in hero mode).

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Kalypse (Lucy Liu, left) and Hespera (Helen Mirren) have nothing good planned for mankind in "Shazam! Fury of the Gods."

“Fury of the Gods” goes way bigger in set pieces, with an impressive man cave straight out of the “Harry Potter” movies and a fearsome dragon made of wood that screams “Game of Thrones.” The Daughters’ invasion of Philadelphia tears up Citizens Bank Park and other places with computer-generated creatures and underwhelming villains running amok. But it’s the emotional, feel-good family stuff that continues to be the “Shazam” hallmark.

After the original movie leaned into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, its sequel delves into problems people can’t fight with super-strength and impressive speed. Billy puts up a brave façade, but the lightning bolt super suit can’t hide his insecurities. And the movie deftly handles issues facing the other characters, too, including college dreams and wrestling with coming out to family members.

Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) meets the new girl in school, Anthea (Rachel Zegler), in "Shazam! Fury of the Gods."

While DC films have struggled to find success among critics and audiences alike in recent years, “Shazam” stood out from its grim brethren by embracing a wholesome sense of humor that more often resembled rival Marvel’s superhero titles. Batman's cool and all, but he's probably never going to hand out Skittles to a unicorn. (Tasting the rainbow isn't really that guy's thing.)

Zegler helps in that optimistic vein as a new addition. So do the returning heroes, and that’s where Levi continues to be these films’ best asset. He brings an inherent goodness and wonder to the souped-up Billy yet also a needed vulnerability that nicely complements his impossible-to-crack exterior.

So let’s keep the Shazamily around, shall we? Until DC figures out its next Superman, Levi’s plucky man-child should do the trick.