DC has struggled more often than not with their cinematic universe, especially in comparison to rival Marvel’s. There have been a few successes (the first Wonder Woman and the second Suicide Squad) and plenty of big failures (the second Wonder Woman and the first Suicide Squad among them). That bumpy road continues with their latest effort, Black Adam.
A sort of cross between Black Panther and Shazam!, it has a really interesting concept for its main character, but saddles him with an underwhelmingly routine “save the world” introductory plot. It creates a potentially cool hero versus anti-hero dynamic and then squanders it by putting him in the type of story that could have featured many other superheroes. Dwayne Johnson seems very much at home in the role of a cold-blooded demi-god. Sadly, the screenplay layers on mythology, world-building and setup for the future, as opposed to leaving him alone to star in his own movie.
The story takes place in the fictional country of Kahndaq, which was saved from an evil king thousands of years ago by a champion gifted with the power of the gods. In the present day, the country’s people are under the rule of a military force with nefarious plans, so their champion is summoned once again to protect them.
There are two things Black Adam (113 minutes, plus a mid-credit scene) uses well. The first is the idea of the titular character. He is a hero in the sense that he is defending the helpless from the power-hungry. As we have learned from countless superhero movies, a hero uses violence only when necessary. They only kill when there is literally no other option. Black Adam exclusively uses violence to solve problems and his enemies never live to regret getting in his way. He kills without thought, though he does aim his anger at those that are a threat to him or his people.
In addition to going against the villainous Intergang, his methodology puts him at odds with the so-called good guys. Here that is the Justice Society, represented by Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Cyclone and Atom Smasher. They are another group of planet protectors and they don’t take too kindly to Black Adam’s brand of brutal justice.
However, as is pointed out by one of the residents of Kahndaq, they have been controlled by Intergang for decades and the Justice Society has done nothing to help them. Conversely, Black Adam came to their aid the second he woke up. So what if he is acting as an executioner? He is actually protecting those in need; something the self-professed true heroes have failed to do.
That is an intriguing conflict, as the Justice Society has to deal with Black Adam’s destruction while also stopping a possible world-ending danger. Hawkman has a narrow-minded view of what being a hero entails and doesn’t appreciate Black Adam’s recklessness. There is a lot that could be done with the positives/negatives of each side’s approach to fighting evil. Black Adam merely shows they are different and doesn’t explore it any further.
Granted, it is a big-budget, CGI-heavy, action blockbuster, so it is obviously going to be more interested in spectacle than in debating crime-fighting philosophy. Still, this is the best opportunity DC has had to look at this issue clearly and they mostly use it as an excuse for the good guys to have elaborate fights with each other.
Its number one asset is, of course, Dwayne Johnson, who unsurprisingly turns out to be a fantastic Black Adam. The first (and probably most significant) step to being an effective movie superhero is looking the part and he absolutely does. There is no doubt that his humorless glare would put the fear of death into anyone who crosses his path. The character is understandably one-note; he is essentially the spirit of vengeance. That would seem to be a waste of Johnson’s boundless charisma, yet he still finds a way to display it in his physicality and ability to make a slight head movement amusing. He can certainly carry a major franchise by himself and Black Adam is a passion project for him. Hopefully, the (likely) sequel allows the character the freedom to be unique.
Between Johnson, Aldis Hodge (who brings great presence and intensity to Hawkman) and Pierce Brosnan (as the seen-it-all Dr. Fate), Black Adam has a cast and a protagonist that could have made for a really fun production. Instead, DC decided to just cram them into the usual formula. The result is intermittently entertaining, but mostly boring.
2½ out of 5
Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam
Sarah Shahi as Adrianna
Bodhi Sabongui as Amon
Aldis Hodge as Hawkman
Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate
Noah Centineo as Atom Smasher
Quintessa Swindell as Cyclone
Mohammed Amer as Karim
Marwan Kenzari as Ishmael
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani