Levi boasts a dopey, roguish charm associated more with Super Bowl beer commercials than super-tights. He’s a good physical comedian, especially when he gnaws a breath mint like a bunny. Yet, as the child version of Shazam nears 18, the character can’t stay moronic forever — and there won’t be anything interesting about him once he matures. To stall for time, his character arc is merely a bunt. (As best I could figure, he has to either unite his family … or learn to let them go?) The script, by Gayden and Chris Morgan, a longtime “Fast & Furious” scribe, clutters the bases with over a dozen distractions: six super-siblings at two age stages, three Greek gods, a half-dozen breeds of mythological beasties, two parents, one wizard, and one weak romance between the goddess Anthea (Rachel Zegler, who spends the running time fretfully furrowing her brow) and Billy’s brother Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, an intense, moody actor with the potential — and connections — to be a serious star. (His uncle is the producer Brian Grazer.)
Drama starts when two daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), storm into an Athenian history museum to steal an ancient staff that will restore their celestial ability to raze and smash. I’d credit Mirren for the flourish when her character claws at the staff’s display box like a cat pawing a fish tank, but I’m not entirely sure it was her under the pixels. Once empowered, the immortal sisters reduce the museum’s treasures (and its tourists) to rubble, having as much reverence for human artifacts as we might have for an Ikea couch. Then the pair sets out to squeeze extra god juice from Shazam and his cohorts, who are, as one might expect from untrained children, so awful at hero-ing that their hometown, Philadelphia, has nicknamed them the Fiascos. (Still, to a city that treasures misfit mascots like Gritty and the Phillie Phanatic, that name may be somewhat affectionate.)
The quippy script doesn’t take much seriously. The score, by Christophe Beck, insists that we do. It’s an ungainly mishmash of tones that comes together only in one bizarre, wonderful gag when a graying wizard (Djimon Hounsou) barges into Billy’s erotic dream to deliver some very serious exposition with his head fused to Wonder Woman’s bronze-plated breasts.
Performance-wise, the film is cleaved into two camps: teens versus titans, or really, relentless wisecrackers in on the overall joke versus stern grande dames who treat the joke as sophomoric. The closest Liu comes to a smile is a twitch of anticipation just before she blasts someone with a laser beam. Mirren, looking otherworldly in white mascara and a taloned crown, only bothered to bring one expression to set, a non-emotion best described as “hypnotic cobra face.” When Mirren allows herself to be body-slammed, the shock of seeing the cinema’s queen thwacked into concrete makes it impossible to focus on the stakes of the scene. Instead of thinking about the division of god and mortal, we’re distracted by the blurring of actors and wrestlers.