It was officially announced Dwayne Johnson would be playing Black Adam over 3 Avengers films and 2 versions of Justice League ago, but here we are now in 2022, with a new superhero film coming along ever so often to further fill out a space in the cinematic landscape. What does a villain from the world of Shazam! have to offer? Key to Black Adam is the idea of him serving as an anti-hero who doesn’t play by the same rules as the other capes. Is that something that can truly shake up the DC superhero movie universe? While filled with action and endless CG-enhanced spectacle, this superpowered ancient Egyptian is still only allowed to go so dark. And yet, for all of Black Adam’s seriousness, it still manages to get by as an occasionally goofy comic book movie.
Perhaps working in its favor is how much of a rush this movie is in. Coming in at about two hours, narration and a flashback do what is needed to establish the city of Kahndaq. It was once ruled by a tyrannical leader who enslaved his people in an effort to find Eternium (a new magic rock for the DC universe to focus on). As I said, this film is in a hurry, so rather than fully informing us of how a slave found this crystal, gained the support of the people, and magic powers from a group of wizards, we cut ahead to present day.
In an attempt to be hip, director Jaume Collet-Serra gives the kids what they want to see – a young Middle Eastern boy riding his skateboard through modern Kahndaq while Smashing Pumpkins blasts on the soundtrack. This kid is Amon (Bodhi Sabongui). We’ll periodically check in on him as he gets into dangerous situations. He also loves superheroes and skateboarding (the kids need someone to relate to, of course). More important is Amon’s mom, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), as she’s on the way to tomb raiding into the location of Black Adam’s tomb. Bad guys in the form of the Intergang organization try to steal a magic crown, but not before the emergence of Johnson’s lightning-enhanced invulnerable badass.
The introduction of Black Adam shows promise, as this is not the warm and friendly version of the Rock that Johnson has turned into a household name. Instead, we have a character that destroys everyone he encounters (and attacks him). Collet-Serra and the visual effects team enjoy visualizing Black Adam batting around missiles, helicopters, and more, to show how unstoppable this godlike being is. But what else makes this interesting?
In what appears to be a smart move, much of the film also focuses on the members of the Justice Society of America. What makes this group different than the Justice League? I couldn’t tell you, but they seem to consist of veterans and newer recruits guided by Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller. The JSA features Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), with the powers of flight, swinging around a cool mace, and being constantly pissed off at Black Adam. There’s also the group’s senior member, Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). The Doc wears a magical helmet that allows him to see the future and do other cool tricks. Noah Centineo portrays Atom Smasher, a guy who can grow six stories tall. Finally, there’s Quintessa Swindell’s Cyclone, a controller of the wind.
The bulk of this film, and its most successful (if repetitive) angle, is pitting the JSA against Black Adam, as the heroes see this being as someone who doesn’t belong. He’s too powerful, and the world may not be ready for another metahuman that can casually destroy buildings. However, the people of Kahndaq need a protector. Why should they have to see their reborn hero taken away when superpowered people like the JSA have done nothing to keep away the crime syndicate that has invaded their city? In between the fighting, Black Adam almost manages to find some nuanced understanding of this dilemma and how it aligns with our reality. It ultimately amounts to nothing beyond a murky stance on using brute force to handle these situations, but hey, at least the move approached the question.
With that said, the constant collisions between Black Adam and the Justice Society allow for a level of fun and various incredible moments for the target demographic to enjoy. If anyone needs an ample supply of slow-motion shots of the Rock and Hawkman duking it out, with occasional appearances from Cyclone moving objects through the sky and Atom Smasher smashing things, there is no shortage of that in Black Adam.
Does it all look great? Well, that depends. At times, there’s a level of clarity inherited from the Zack Snyder school of intense closeups on characters stuck in time. Sure, the fight scenes are often edited way too much to better clarify the scope, but things still mostly work. However, there are times when the visuals are less effective, such as when Black Adam decides to introduce an actual villain all the main characters can agree on being the objectively bad element in need of being beaten. We’ve come a long way in the realm of CG monsters that need to be defeated (look no further than the Rock as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns). Still, it is a shame when a giant devil creature leaves no real lasting feeling beyond an unfortunate look.
Ideally bringing this all together should be Johnson’s decision to go dark as Black Adam. Sadly, I can’t say this is the move we’ve been waiting for as far as seeing the risk-averse star truly challenge himself. Sure, he does a lot more scowling than smiling this time around, but we’re still watching a PG-13 studio superhero film that assures us that all of the people who Black Adam kills are evil mercenaries. I can appreciate being reminded that Black Adam is specifically not a hero, but Johnson is given very few beats to play that truly expand on his nature.
Is it better or worse that he is pushed to be a part of an ensemble cast? Well, I can say the supporting players at least provide good energy. Chief among them is Brosnan, who everyone already knew would bring a nice level of gravitas and some wry wit to the proceedings. The rest of the cast is fine without having anyone truly standing out as anything more than the latest version of characters we’ve seen throughout the past decade in various DC and Marvel films. That’s not to say the effort isn’t there, but the “aw shucks” nature of Atom Smasher and the stern but understanding Hawkman only go so far in a movie with so much potential to do more with what it has.
Still, by the end of it all, it’s hard not to at least smile at the cut-to-the-chase approach it takes to being a comic book movie starring the Rock. Scenes of dialogue and various bits of backstory are structured like I could envision the comic book panel equivalents. When the action breaks out, they feel like fun splash pages allowing for a maximalist take on these powersets coming together for battle. While not breaking too much of the mold when it comes to the narrative at play, it does feel like Collet-Serra got to have a bit more fun here than he did with Jungle Cruise. Do I still look forward to another lower-budget effort from him that once again finds him aping Hitchcock in schlocky ways? Sure, but he’s still managing to shove in references to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in a film featuring Dwayne Johnson in a black rubber costume.
Whether or not Black Adam is truly the beginning of a shift in the hierarchy of power in the DC universe, I got enough out of the film to enjoy it. Is it a stepping stone to wilder collaborations between Black Adam and other supers down the road, perhaps? With that said, here’s a solo(-ish) superhero effort that manages to get in and out without feeling like it needed devastating stakes to be successful. Questionable thoughts about Johnson as an Egyptian aside, it’s also doing its part to be a film serving underrepresented populations in a huge-budget blockbuster. Sure, the whole thing comes off as less remarkable than it could have in a time not dominated by such a large variety of superhero films. But remember, Black Adam never said he was a hero. As a film star, he’s at least acceptable.
Black Adam opens in theaters and IMAX on October 21, 2022.