Movie Review – Black Adam
Principal Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Aldiss Hodge, Pierce Brosnan, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Mohammed Amer, Bodhi Sabongui, Djimon Hounsou, Viola Davis, Jennifer Holland, Jalon Christian, James Cusati-Moyer.
Synopsis: Nearly 5,000 years after he was bestowed with the almighty powers of the Egyptian gods–and imprisoned just as quickly–Black Adam is freed from his earthly tomb, ready to unleash his unique form of justice on the modern world.
For what feels like the better part of a hundred years, Dwayne Johnson has been attached to the role of Black Adam, the eponymous DC Comics villain spawned from the pages of the Captain Marvel (then Shazam) comics line. When he announced his commitment to the part waaaay back in 2014 DC was developing their first Shazam film, before creative differences saw the project revamped, and the character retooled into being the lead in his own solo film; a decade or so later, Black Adam finally lands on our screens with Johnson’s oft-touted promise that “the hierarchy of the DC Universe is about to change”, perhaps apropos given the dearth of Superman appearances on the big screen since Henry Cavill’s last appearance in Justice League. Given all that time for Warner Bros and DC to get it right, does Black Adam live up to the hype?
In short, not at all. Black Adam is, frankly, a pretty terrible film. It’s an utter nonsense, a loudly obnoxious VFX affair that leans more into the Michael Bay Transformers insanity than a coherent, viable DC Universe entry approximating Man of Steel or Wonder Woman. That said, I did have a lot of fun with it, recognising its deficiencies and simply not giving a shit about any of it. Dwayne Johnson seems to be having a solidly good time playing the anti-hero, co-star Pierce Brosnan finally gets a role suited to his modern-day grumpy mood, and Aldis Hodge has a nice time as Hawkman, one of DC’s preeminent second-tier heroes.
Johnson’s Teth Adam, as he’s originally known, is a man gifted similar powers to Shazam’s Captain Marvel, issued by a bolt of lighting whenever he utters the acronym of the six ancient Wizards who granted him this power – through flashbacks, we see Adam’s family attempting to escape slavery and persecution in ancient Kahndaq, with his son tragically losing his life and Adam striking back in a rage to defeat their captors. Interspersed with modern day, Adam rises again after being summoned to defeat the forces of Intergang, which have infiltrated the city and rule with a cruel and sadistic hand. Archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), her young son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) and their associate Ishmael (Marwen Kanzari) race through the city looking for the mysterious Crown of Sabbac, a mysterious and powerful artefact with the potential to unleash considerable demonic power into the world. When the Justice Society – Hawkman (Hodge), Doctor Fate (Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) – arrive to neutralise the dangerous Teth Adam, their mission to do so is continually thwarted by Adam’s raw power and the intrusion of his human allies.
With razor-thin character development and a disposition for loud explosions, Black Adam’s aesthetic seems to be kitchen-sink storytelling. Throwing a lot of exposition into the mix is a dangerous idea, mainly because it can be quite fatiguing for audiences to latch onto the ideas of the movie if you don’t do it well. This would be counteracted by engaging characters or proficient narrative expediency, something Black Adam struggles with at times, resulting in a film that feels too perfunctory, too generic, to really make much headway within the glut of genre films released each year. The backstory of Teth Adam is intrinsically interesting moreso thanks to Dwayne Johnson’s performance than the writing, and the traditional superhero beats find indifference through overkill and an abundance of destruction than subtle development of ideas or subtlety. Black Adam desperately wants to be a rollercoaster, but it’s more like a loud, dangerous ferris wheel.
As Adam, Dwayne Johnson’s natural charm and screen presence is neutered by all the CG and risible indestructible combat he’s forced to engage in. Never has an actor been born to play a single role so much as Johnson to Black Adam, and his physicality is definitely more than enough to inhabit the black suit, but this film wastes it by smothering him in turgid, incoherent motivations and a shit-load of glowering, staring, and punching. Here he’s just no fun. At least if Teth Adam had a glimmer or wink of humour about him the film might have felt more engaging. Wasting a talent as charismatic as The Rock on a character played so dour and so unforgiving, is almost unforgivable in and of itself.
The rest of the cast do their best with limited material. Pierce Brosnan comes off the best as Doctor Fate, arguably one of the more memorable DC characters introduced here, a grumpy and tortured soul whose helmet allows him to glimpse the future. Bodhi Sabongui is yet another hip-to-be-square kid with attitude and hutzpah to spare as Amon, a link of humanity between Black Adam and the world’s destruction, while Sarah Shahi’s Adrianna, Amon’s mother, is as decidedly generic as they come – no fault of the actress, who does a solid job, but rather the writing (again) which pigeonholes here as a rebellious intellectual hoping Teth Adam can save them all. Poor Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell are saddled with terrible C-level characters and have very little to do inside the context of the film; as Atom Smasher, Centineo’s role is basically an inverse Ant-Man and a clumsy one at that, while Swindell’s “young heroine” role reeks of inclusive politicking, as if they had to have here there to prevent the film being practically a sausage fest.
After all this, while I recognise the film’s many faults (and they are everywhere), I had a great time with Black Adam because it demanded very little of me, and delivered a lot of generic superhero action that satisfies much like a Happy Meal. It’s not nutritious, but has some tasty ingredients that work well enough to evince a smile. The destruction is epic, the music is loud, the cameos are delightful (the no-longer-secret reveal of Henry Cavill’s Superman in a mid-credit sting remains one the true highlights in recent years) and Collet-Serra’s enthusiastic and dynamic direction of on-screen action is technically excellent. It’s all played with dead-seriousness, though, and that’s where things come unstuck. Black Adam’s Big Bad Villain is dispensed of quite quickly and without fanfare, which leaves the taste of “wait, is that it?” in one’s mouth; I’d rather have had a nuclear-option antagonist for Adam to face off against and we didn’t quite get that. Sabbac ain’t a Steppenwolf or Darkseid and that’s kinda what was required. Instead, it’s a riff of Shazam’s demonic climax repurposed for Johnson’s rippled-physique abilities, and while it’s not awful it still isn’t very good.
Black Adam isn’t a great example of narrative filmmaking and it certainly isn’t the hierarchy reset Johnson decried for nearly a decade after assuming the role. There’s laughable aspects to the film everywhere, and a resounding messiness to the begrudging hints at a wider DC Universe, a universe now reset again with the assumption of James Gunn as one of the DC Studio heads to take on steering the franchise forward. And while Black Adam is a difficult film to think about with any positivity, I did find myself enjoying it for what it offered and what it was attempting to do. There are, at a minimum, several great “superhero scenes” to enjoy, so try to have fun with it. Just don’t expect a film that delivers narrative quality or depth of character.