Shazam! – it’s another retch-inducing mix of pixels and gibberish

Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu in Shazam! Fury of the Gods - Warner Bros
Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu in Shazam! Fury of the Gods - Warner Bros

“Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you [that] you are ever past your prime,” Michelle Yeoh memorably advised at Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony. And here, already, is a sign that positive change in Hollywood might be afoot.

In the latest superhero outing from DC, the villains are played by Helen Mirren, 77, and Lucy Liu, 54 – and their roles are just as grindingly inane as Elizabeth Olsen’s in Doctor Strange 2, Tenoch Huerta’s in Black Panther 2, Marwan Kenzari’s in Black Adam and so forth. At last, here is an opportunity for Hollywood’s more experienced actresses to put on silly costumes, hold their arms aloft and mutter some mystical gibberish while pixels churn on the green screen behind them like underpants in a washing machine.

In terms of representation, you couldn’t ask for more. And that’s just as well, because in terms of entertainment, you could barely get less.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is a sequel to the 2019 film Shazam!, in which a teenage foster-child, Asher Angel’s Billy Batson, is granted the power to transform into a vermillion hunk, played by Zachary Levi, with the usual roster of Superman-like powers. The film’s premise gave it the pleasing feel of an old-fashioned body-swap comedy such as Big or Vice Versa, while its grisly serpent-tongued villains – a septet of demons called the Seven Deadly Sins – owed a debt to the luminous rubber horrors of Ghostbusters.

Anyway, nearly all traces of borrowed personality are gone in this thoroughly dreary reprise, in which Mirren’s Hespera and Liu’s Kalypso, a pair of Greek warrior nymphs, try to conjure an enormous tree in the middle of Philadelphia, capable of destroying all life on Earth. It falls to Billy and his similarly powered foster siblings to thwart this plan, which in practice involves zipping through grubbily staged action scenes while trading the sort of unrelentingly quippy dialogue that has the rhythm of jokes, but not the jokes of jokes, and therefore starts to grate after around five minutes.

Some of the monsters in Mirren and Liu's mythical menagerie have a pleasing Harryhausen-esque chunkiness, and Rachel Zegler, fresh from Spielberg’s West Side Story, mildly enlivens things as a third goddess with the power to scramble the city around her like a Rubik’s Cube. But has anyone thought about what’s actually going on as these tower blocks apparently swivel and whirl all over the place at 100 rpm? Do the residents all run outside afterwards retching, with their hands on their knees?

If so, they’d better do quickly, before one of the more flagrant product placement deals in recent times turns a certain brand of colourful confectionery into a crucial plot device. That’s not the rainbow you’re tasting: it’s a franchise running on E-numbers and fumes.

12A cert, 130 min. In cinemas from Friday