The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change. At least, that’s what Dwayne Johnson wants to believe. Dating back to nearly 2007, Johnson has been hungry to bring Shazam’s nemesis and anti-hero in his own right, Black Adam, to the screen. After an uncommonly long gestation period, Johnson has finally brought Black Adam to the screen, in his own solo movie. Its release comes at a time of great uncertainty for the DC Extended Universe and Warner Bros. as a whole, with and its future constantly in flux. Frankly, there’s a lot on the shoulders of Black Adam. So much pressure, in fact, it’s unlikely any film could rise to the occasion. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete lost cause.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise, Orphan), Black Adam has an unshakeable workman-like quality to it. Its opening, featuring Teth-Adam (Johnson), a slave in the nation Kahndaq gaining powers from a Council of Wizards to become the people’s champion before being locked away for 5000 years, openly cribs from the likes of 300. The mildly amusing prologue surges forward into the modern day where Kahndaqi resistance fighter Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), and thier son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) go on a barely legible mission to uncover an ancient crown before the occupying force, the Intergang, do so… or something like that. It does not communicate this very well. The point is that they unleash Teth-Adam and he makes them feel his fury.
Once the titular Teth-Adam, or Black Adam, is unleashed, the good qualities of the film begin to come out. There will always be a fun factor to seeing a god-like being lay waste to nameless goons, especially shot by the incomparable Lawrence Sher, who understands how to make these things look cool. Yet, this sequence also highlights some issues early on. Johnson’s performance is severely hit-or-miss. The man has made it clear through his myriad of recent flicks where he’s in a nondescript jungle in a tan shirt that he doesn’t like to stray far from his comfort zone. Well, at least he has a more unique costume this time around. His Black Adam is a stone-faced, “badass” character who never quite gets the viciousness he deserves, although his physicality sometimes works.
Black Adam makes a self-conscious point, from the moment of his awakening, to portray him as a fish out of water. Naturally, tons of crowd-pleasing, low-effort comedy comes from that. It’s a choice that works, but undermines the anti-hero nature of the comics’ character. Faring far less better is the Tomaz family. Writers Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani try to have a human element without putting in the legwork. The political implications of an occupied country trying to get free are clumsy. Moreover, none of these characters are really very likable or memorable. Karim, especially, is a vehicle for the grating comedy of the more middling Marvel Cinematic Universe films, getting only chuckles at best. If the film wants to hang its hat on these characters, it fails.
Thankfully, the much-advertised “Justice Society of America” element delivers overtime. Carter Hall/Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) leads this rag-tag group sent in to take in Black Adam by any means necessary. Said group includes sorcerer Kent Nelson/Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), wind and sound controller Maxine Hunkel/Cyclone (Quintessa Swindel), and size grower Al Rothstein/Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo). This motley crew of B-list DC heroes have their own unique wants, objectives, and power sets that make an argument that they should’ve been the stars of the movie. Most importantly, however, when they fight, it rocks. Hard.
For all of Collet-Serra’s limitations as a director, he knows how to bring the fireworks. The better half of Black Adam is a superhero smackdown that brings the spectacle tenfold. Basically, Collet-Serra finds as many visually inventive ways to communicate semi-unstoppable forces going up against an unmoving object. A rock, if you will. It’s like seeing those great splash pages from the best DC comics brought to life. Whenever Black Adam embraces the over-the-top entertainment value of the DC Universe, it delivers and then some. It has the showmanship of the ring where Johnson got his start. But as a complete package, it leaves something to be desired.
Black Adam is fine. As a DC Extended Universe and typical Dwayne Johnson blockbuster, it contains the best parts of the former and the worst of the latter. It doesn’t reinvigorate the universe, although an exciting crowd-pleaser of a mid-credits scene sure makes it feel like it for a second. But it’s not a disaster either. It’s competent. A turn-your-brain-off superhero blockbuster that doesn’t move the needle. The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe remains unchanged, but at least the universe isn’t dead. – James Preston Poole
Black Adam is in theaters everywhere October 21st.