Nearly a decade since he was announced in the role, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson finally graces cinema screens as the title character in Black Adam with the intention of bringing new life to the beleaguered DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
Opening five thousand years ago in the Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq, a young slave fights for freedom against the invaders who occupy his land. When the slave is granted superpowers, the fate of Teth Adam (Johnson) will be forever changed. In the present day, mercenaries seeking the cursed Crown of Sabbac force archaeologist Adriana Tomaz (Sarah Shahi, The L Word) to unleash Adam’s might on an unsuspecting world.
Disgusted to find his beloved Kahndaq under the heel of yet another foreign invader, Adam must rise once more to become his people’s champion. But even as Adam makes short work of his enemies, the Justice Society of America is en route to Kahndaq, seeking to impose their idea of world peace.
Redemption for the DCEU?
Black Adam has been positioned as a course correction for the DCEU, which — despite its share of hits — has never been able to achieve the consistent blockbuster highs befitting its legendary characters. Given that “The Rock” has been known to boost nearly every series he’s joined, (earning him the nickname of “Franchise Viagra”), expectations for Black Adam were through the roof. Marketing and press interviews teased a darker, more mature take on the traditional superhero film, with Johnson himself promising the film would, “change the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe”.
But between introducing the title character and his mythology, his supporting cast, a hitherto unseen super team, a new direction for the DCEU, and a handful of throwbacks to previous entries, Black Adam had its work cut out for it. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. put the relatively untested Jaume Collet-Serra in the director’s chair of the $200 million production.
Known for helming mid-to-low-budgeted affairs like The Shallows (2016), Orphan (2009), and multiple interchangeable Liam Neeson thrillers, the closest Collet-Serra has been to a major franchise tentpole was 2021’s Jungle Cruise, and even that managed to be memorable solely for how bland he managed to make Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson appear.
But, to be fair, the sheer number of boxes this film had to check would have flustered any number of experienced filmmakers.
The people’s champ
The notion of an empowered slave reliving his personal traumas to battle foreign oppressors is endlessly compelling, and well in line with Adam’s comic book origins. At the same time, the JSA’s inclusion as avatars of American foreign policy (and/or military-industrial complex) would have been the icing on the cake. Somewhere along the line, someone thought we’d prefer having Adam learn one-liners before a barely-there subplot leads to the umpteenth superhero finale where a pulsating portal/sky beam summons interchangeable cannon fodder.
The people’s boredom
To be clear, this is the sort of film where a shallow narrative could be overlooked if the action was brilliant or outstanding in any way, but while Collet-Serra is certainly capable of ripping off Zack Snyder’s signature desaturated CGI slow-mo aesthetic, he neglects to do anything interesting or original with it. Indeed, the closest thing approaching creativity here is having Adam demolish multiple Justice League posters, but even that gets old from the sheer number of times they repeat it.
Rock bottom storytelling
Compounding the matter is the film’s dependence on monologues over actual storytelling (or competent filmmaking), with a late-in-the-game reveal relying solely on the camera never showing the narrator’s face.
Cutting an impressive figure in Adam’s (un-padded!) super suit, Johnson looks every bit the part of a supernatural powerhouse. On paper, he is perfectly cast as the stoic, Adam, but making the man recap the plot via multiple tedious monologues was a poor choice.
Ultimately, the film relies on our collective affinity for Johnson and the DC Universe to power it, but in a post-pandemic world, audiences deserve more than a famous name on a poster to get them into cinemas.
Regardless of role, genre, or medium, Dwayne Johnson is one of the most charismatic performers on the planet, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Black Adam. While stripping the film of color puts it firmly in line with the bulk of its DCEU brethren, stripping The Rock of personality is an outright crime. How much of this was a result of the direction, and how much came from fear of tarnishing Johnson’s family-friendly image is up for debate, but there’s no denying that the result is a character that suffers from being sanitized.
By failing to lean into what makes the character different, Black Adam is just another sullen guy in a cape, and the DCEU has enough of those. Even when he’s ripping off limbs or rending bad guys in two, to the film’s abject unwillingness to go all in on the brutality leaves little to keep one engaged. Granted, Black Adam (the character) isn’t meant to be likable, or any sort of role model, but nobody said he had to be boring.
The Justice Society of America
Comics’ first-ever super team (sorry, Avengers fans!) makes their big screen debut, and they are a colorful bunch, led capably by Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) as Hawkman and Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye, Mamma Mia) the DCEU’s resident sorcerer.
Their team is rounded out by young heroes Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell, Euphoria) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), whose potential the film squanders on jokes from better movies. Are they a team with a long history? Were there other members? How does Hawkman bankroll the operation? If Doctor Fate has been around for over a hundred years, why didn’t he do anything when Doomsday/Steppenwolf/Max Lord/ and/or Darkseid attacked?
Sadly, we’ll never know the answers to these questions, as the film just throws them into the mix and expects us to care. Three-fourths of the way in, Fate refers to Hawkman as his oldest friend, and this is literally the only insight we get into their so-called “relationship”.
Had these characters been introduced in their own film, or at least in a manner that presented them in an organic manner -rather than a bunch of archetypes with stock characteristics standing in for characterization- they may have had a chance, but as it stands, the biggest impression the JSA makes is how little they matter to the overall film.
The bottom line
When a post-credits scene gets the biggest (and absolutely well-deserved!) cheer of the movie, it’s clear that priorities have been misplaced. The biggest tragedy here is that Johnson is clearly having a grand time, and so will fans – using a lesser-known character’s darkness to make the lighter side shine that much brighter is a genuinely brilliant idea. Sadly, whatever enjoyment Collet-Serra and The Rock must get from working with each other just doesn’t seem to carry over onto the screen.
Have you caught Black Adam in cinemas? Tell us what you think in the comments!