Sometimes a comic book movie can simply be a fun adventure, and the latest DC Universe installment, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods (B) is just that, a rollicking escape. The funny Zachary Levi leads a Philadelphia posse of scrappy superheroes harboring a collective secret: They are actually teenage foster children who can transform into caped crusaders in a snap. The story doesn’t really plumb the full depth of the family trauma and psychological implications inherent in the premise. but it plunges head-first into a mythological action barnburner with the teens fighting titans. The moviemakers disguise their earnestness with wry, throwaway humor especially via teen actor Jack Dylan Grazer, but they squander some chances to dial up the camp value of Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu as daughters of Atlas. There are long passages with pretty elaborate special effects, evocative of the original Ghostbusters with mixes of laughs and thrills packed into showdowns on expansive streets. Opportunities about to root for the underdogs. The film is largely family friendly and keeps enough plates spinning to nourish viewers for its duration.
The ambition and creativity its original director intended before a family tragedy prompted him to eject from the helm of his 2017 version of his film are now on full display, as are the material’s flaws, in the 2021 remix of the DC superhero origins movie Zack Snyder’s Justice League (B). Told in six acts like a binge series in four-hour film form (the even numbered sections are best, by the way), this desaturated operatic opus reconstructs and recontextualizes the story of how Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman unite to bring back Superman and defeat an intergalactic villain. The R-rated reshuffling puts more focus and pathos on some of the younger cast members, Ray Fisher as Cyborg and Ezra Miller as The Flash, yielding some freshness and fun amidst a rather epic canvas of reliable action film favorites. Most of the visual effects are glorious, some downright mythical, and there are some pretty compelling action set pieces even though the risks seem low with this breed of formidable fighters running the table. The solemn film’s zigzagging epilogue feels like a dozen plot threads in search of a next franchise. Overall the additional world building, newly rousing score and compelling clarifications don’t adequately make up for for a bifurcated focus and sometimes disjointed narrative that bogs down some of its subplots; but ultimately too much of a good thing is so much better than not enough of a mediocre one.
Talk about a throwback: raiders of a lost artifact are romancing an ancient stone capable of granting its owner worldwide domination, but despite a few footloose flashdances of frivolous fun and a flurry of war games capable of shifting the def con, this comic strip bonanzarama devolves quickly into an aggressively tone-shifting eclectic boogaloo. Patty Jenkins follows up her original solemn Wonder Woman with an off-the-rails sequel, WW84 (C), set in the excess of the eighties, and it’s largely a lasso of lunacy. The DC Universe settles in D.C. as the protagonist quietly works in the museum antiquity business while side hustling with crime fighting on The Mall and at the mall. Despite her gorgeousness and swell stunts, Gal Gadot looks like she has a migraine for most of the movie as her plucky naiveté transforms into full warrior mode. She’s still the best thing about the film and adds pomp, pageantry, grace and grandeur to even the most throwaway lines. Kristen Wiig fares poorly as an underwritten friend turned rival (it’s like her SNL “Penelope” character says, “I can be a CGI character too, and mine is a fierce cat!”). Pedro Pascal is also adrift as a villainous megalomaniac whose intentions vary scene by scene. It’s like you get two villains for the effect of one. Only Chris Pine in an extended cameo retains a bit of dignity. Nearly everything earthbound in the story including a prolonged wish fulfillment conceit is a relative dud; but when characters take flight, including in the famous invisible jet, the film mildly soars. Action sequences, more infrequent than expected, largely deliver on the storyboard. But most of this anticipated blockbuster is a clunky cacophony, and even nifty nostalgia can’t save it.
Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot lasso a true kickstart to the summer movie season with grit and girlpower, spunk and splendor in the satisfying superhero movie Wonder Woman (B+). After an origin story prologue on Amazon island where warrior Diana grows up with a peacekeeping destiny and mentorship from Robin Wright, the narrative thrusts to Europe, where our heroine marshals a team of ragtag ruffians to infiltrate WWI enemies and attempt to thwart a bunch of baddies and their chemical weapons plot. Jenkins proves masterful in taking us to tentpole territory with a reverent tone, pulpy production values and motivated action. Gadot is a delight as a woman with singular purpose and a refreshing lack of irony. Chris Pine is superb as her foil, an American spy who answers her questions about the nuances of men’s modern warcraft and anatomy. Mostly, it’s old-fashioned adventure building on the spirit of the original Captain America or The Rocketeer, with moments of comedy in London a most enjoyable surprise. For thrills and good-natured fun, this is a high point for the otherwise murky D.C. comics cinematic universe and the antidote for and female-driven counterpoint to Michael Bay style phone-’em-in summer blockbuster machinations.
Zack Synder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (C) is schizophrenic in virtually every way, from its title that purports to be both an unexpected showdown as well as a Justice League origin story to keeping up with each of its title characters and their respective alter egos. I swear you’d need a 3-D modeling kit to diagram this plot; and for comic book fans already accustomed to a multiverse of known rules, the film complicates the landscape even further and not always in good ways. The first hour is rather compelling as we see ways earthlings are grappling with its Kryptonian savior, resulting in intercontinental espionage, congressional hearings and noirish double crosses. It gets complicated though when Alexander Luthor, played with relish by Jesse Eisenberg, hatches a way to kill Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) that somehow involves Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) using Kryptonite to level the playing field and fight to the death as mere mortals. All of this is made even more vexing by it not being entirely clear why Batman is near masochistically intent on destroying a super guy who he may have one or two passing disagreements with. And, oh yeah, there’s a Kryptonian villain plus Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to introduce, the latter with guitar riffs that sound composed by Bill & Ted. It’s not a complete folly, but there’s a bit more blistering bombast than any film should contain. So many aspects actually work that it’s a shame it just gets overstuffed. The production values, the always reliable Amy Adams as Lois Lane and some of the set-pieces are first rate. Alas Affleck and his hybrid butler/inventor (Jeremy Irons, collecting a paycheck), seem lost at sea. Which reminds me, where did Aquaman go? You’ll ultimately be exhausted as this buffet often has explosive consequences. Although much of the movie is lively and engaging, beware whatever they’re smoking in Snyder’s basement.