Review: BLACK ADAM, DC's Pre-Modern Anti-Hero Gets the Big-Screen Treatment
After development-related delays stretching back more than a decade, Black Adam, Dwayne Johnson’s belated addition to Warner Bros.'s vaguely defined, loosely connected DCEU (DC Extended Universe), arrives in multiplexes with a mix of anticipation and dread, the former due to Johnson’s star power and bigger-than-life presence, the latter due to the DCEU’s decidedly uneven track record both commercially and critically.
Alas, dread was more than justified in relation to Black Adam, an exhaustingly hyperkinetic, hyperactive, ultra-violent (within PG-13 boundaries) anti-hero epic, long on CGI-aided spectacle and short on everything else.
A clunkily written, overlong prologue voiced by an over-excitable preteen takes a deep dive into the history of the fictional, Middle-Eastern kingdom of Khandaq. Set 5,000 years ago (2600 BC), the offscreen narrator goes into excruciatingly expository detail, briefly celebrating the civilizational advances of the fictional kingdom before turning into a cautionary tale about kings, power, and corruption.
A ruler becomes a tyrant, a young boy attempts to lead a revolution that ultimately fails, ancient, super-powerful wizards step in, granting the boy the powers of “Shazam.” Chaos ultimately reigns and the rage-filled super being known as Teth-Adam (Johnson in black spandex) seemingly wins the battle before disappearing forever.
Except he doesn’t, of course. Entombed by the same wizards who gave him immeasurable power, Teth-Adam has been biding his time in suspended animation, awaiting the arrival of an acolyte and/or archeologist to free him from his tomb-prison.
When he awakes from his slumber, thanks to the efforts of a Khandaq native, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), hoping to free her perpetually conquered and occupied country from international mercenaries, Intergang. For comic book readers, Intergang will be a familiar, if not exactly fearsome, foe. For non comic-book readers, however, Intergang will look like disposable, forgettable henchmen without a visible leader (i.e., “Big Bad”). Both will be right.
In the first of a seemingly endless, endlessly bludgeoning series of videogame cut-scene-quality action scenes, Teth-Adam’s arrival in the present leads to mass slaughter. Luckily, Teth-Adam tends to be selective in who he kills (i.e., Intergang) and who he leaves alone (Adrianna and her associates), drawing the line at men with guns (“weak magic” to him) and dispatching them without breaking the equivalent of a sweat.
The PG-13 rating means most of the deaths are bloodless and gore-free, but since CGI is involved, the rating allows practically anything else (e.g., immolation, concussive blasts, throwing Intergang’s members from great heights or long distances).
Black Adam might be an anti-hero, but we as the audience are expected to root for him, at least until the point where he adjusts his violent impulses for the kindler, gentler present. Given, though, that Intergang doesn’t represent much of a threat to Black Adam, the film introduces a handful of members from the heretofore unmentioned Justice Society, Carter Hall / Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), a mace- and wing-powered superhero, Doctor Fate / Kent Nelson (Pierce Brosnan), a greying, slick-haired magic-man, Al Rothstein / Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), a size-changing legacy hero, and Maxine Hunkel / Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a superhero who can control the natural elements.
With the possible exception of Hall, the other members of the team echo superheroes audiences have seen countless times before via the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or the X-Verse (the now defunct X-Men universe), making the reveals of their powers perfunctory rather than exciting. With barely a line or two each as introduction, the Justice Society, a precursor time-wise to the better-known, higher-profiled Justice League, feel like they should been introduced in another, earlier film. Adding them here feels like both too much and too little, too much because they take time away from Black Adam and his journey and too little because of their rushed, superficial intros.
It doesn’t help too that Black Adam exhaustingly devolves into a series of super-powered punch-ups that turn numbing with repetition. A stop-start-stop third-act, complete with a false ending 20 minutes before the end credits roll, doesn’t help either. Even worse, the attempt to explore Black Adam as a rigid, inflexible anti-hero with a preference for killing over negotiation tends to go around in concentric circles.
Then again, he’s almost justified in responding with force when the Justice Society, an international organization supposedly devoted to maintaining world peace and/or global stability, shows up unannounced, demanding his unconditional surrender or fight it out. Unsurprisingly, Black Adam chooses the latter.
As Black Adam, Johnson makes for a formidable presence. Physically, he’s perfect as the punch-first, think-last anti-hero. He even delivers a handful of lines in support of Black Adam’s murder-spree in convincing fashion, but presence and commitment alone aren’t enough when the script feels like it’s been cobbled together from four or five different drafts and Black Adam seemingly exists to keep visual effects companies busy or set-up the inevitable next entry and the superhero punch-up to end all superhero punch-ups (until the next superhero punch-up, of course).
Black Adam opens exclusively in movie theaters on Friday, October 21, 2022.
- Jaume Collet-Serra
- Adam Sztykiel
- Rory Haines
- Sohrab Noshirvani
- Dwayne Johnson
- Sarah Shahi
- Viola Davis