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Movie review: 'Shazam! 2' frustrates with cluttered story

From left, Ross Butler, Jovan Armand, Meagan Good, Zachary Levi and Grace Caroline Currey star in "Shazam! Fury of the Gods." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
1 of 5 | From left, Ross Butler, Jovan Armand, Meagan Good, Zachary Levi and Grace Caroline Currey star in "Shazam! Fury of the Gods." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

LOS ANGELES, March 15 (UPI) -- Shazam! Fury of the Gods, in theaters Friday, unfortunately struggles with the sort of identity crisis that confronts many superhero sequels. It has a lot of good ideas, but has difficulty weaving them into a coherent story.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and his foster siblings have been trying to save Philadelphia as their superhero alter egos. Though they save lives, the city still blames them for the destruction, and personal issues threaten to tear the sextet apart.

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Meanwhile, the Daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), recover the wizard's staff Billy broke at the end of the first movie as his alter ego Shazam (Zachary Levi). Shazam and his friends will have to stop the Daughters and work out their differences.

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Fury of the Gods introduces a lot of worthwhile themes, but leaves them hanging for most of the duration of the movie. By the time those subplots pay off, the film hasn't really earned them.

Billy/Shazam is suffering from impostor syndrome, worried he isn't worthy of his powers. That doesn't really stop him from using them, but manifests more as smothering his siblings/partners.

Freddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) wants to use his powers to be the solo hero, Everypower (Adam Brody). So Freddie doesn't appreciate Billy/Shazam's insistence on all six heroes working together for every mission.

The reason for Billy's anxiety is that he's about to turn 18 and age out of the foster system. Foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) will in all likelihood let him stay, as they have his older foster sister, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey).

But, they will stop getting checks from the state to support Billy, so that is a reality he will have to face. At 18 he'd be more than old enough to get a job and/or move out.

That is a poignant milestone worthy of following after the first film's loving portrayal of a caring foster home. Unfortunately, the business of the Daughters of Atlas doesn't leave much time for it.

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Freddie meets the new girl in school, Ann (Rachel Zegler) and endears himself immediately. It turns out having lunch with Superman at the end of the first movie didn't stop bullies from picking on him.

The bullies punch Freddie in the stomach and break his crutch, which doesn't impress Ann. What does impress Ann is that Freddie knew that would happen and stood up to them, anyway. Freddie's response to blushing in front of a girl is the most endearing of all.

Boy, a movie exploring how being a superhero doesn't solve Freddie's real-life problems would be great, especially if Freddie perseveres, nevertheless. It might also be a Spider-Man movie, but it would still be worth exploring it with unique Shazam powers.

So would the friction between Freddie's independence and Billy's neediness. As a young adult now, Mary also explores socializing with her contemporaries, which only interferes with her heroics once and isn't followed through.

The story had a built-in vehicle for exploring the kids versus their pseudo-adult hero personas. The Daughters of Atlas can use the staff to take away some of the characters' powers.

A lot of superhero sequels coincidentally deal with the heroes losing their powers, too. Superman II and Spider-Man 2 addressed it with greater focus, though Iron Man 2 also struggled with it.

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In Fury of the Gods, losing powers is a mere roadblock. Those who lose their powers simply have to get them back so they can help defeat the Daughters.

None of them is forced to cope with how they could help if they were only their human child forms, let alone how they might still help without super powers.

The Daughters encase Philadelphia under a forcefield dome early in the film, and it doesn't really pose any recurring problems to the citizens throughout the film. It's just the thing Shazam and company have to undo at the end.

Comic book fans will appreciate some of the Easter eggs, especially some taking direct shots at the Marvel versus DC rivalry. Unfortunately, since TV spots spoiled the film's big cameo, this lands with a thud in a room full of viewers who already saw it. Giving that cameo away also ruins a joke earlier in the film.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is far from the most egregious case of shoehorning too many elements into a superhero sequel. It is perhaps more frustrating because the first Shazam! was so much fun.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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