Dwayne Johnson dons spandex and joins the DC Extended Universe, but can’t inject any personality into this blandly by-the-numbers superhero affair.
October 19, 2022
"I kneel before no one," says Teth-Adam, aka Black Adam, aka the DC Comics character that dates back to 1945, and that Dwayne Johnson (Red Notice) has long wanted to play. That proclamation is made early in the film that bears the burly, flying, impervious-to-everything figure's name, echoing as a statement of might as well as mood: he doesn't need to bow down to anyone or anything, and if he did he wouldn't anyway. Yet the DC Extended Universe flick that Black Adam is in — the 11th in a saga that's rarely great — kneels frequently to almost everything. It bends the knee to the dispiritingly by-the-numbers template that keeps lurking behind this comic book-inspired series' most forgettable entries, and the whole franchise's efforts to emulate the rival (and more successful) Marvel Cinematic Universe, for starters. It also shows deference to the lack of spark and personality that makes the lesser DC-based features so routine at best, too.
Even worse, Black Adam kneels to the idea that slipping Johnson into a sprawling superhero franchise means robbing the wrestler-turned-actor himself of any on-screen personality. Glowering and gloomy is a personality, for sure, but it's not what's made The Rock such a box office drawcard — and, rather than branching out, breaking the mould or suiting the character, he just appears to be pouting and coasting. He looks the physical part, of course, as he needs to playing a slave-turned-champion who now can't be killed or hurt. It's hard not to wish that the Fast and Furious franchise's humour seeped into his performance, however, or even the goofy corniness of Jungle Cruise, Johnson's last collaboration with filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra. The latter has template-esque action flicks Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter on his resume before that, and helms his current star here like he'd rather still directing Liam Neeson.
That said, Black Adam, the character, has much to scowl about — and scowl he does. Black Adam, the film, has much backstory to lay out, with exposition slathered on thick during the opening ten minutes. As a mere human in 2600 BCE in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq, its namesake was among an entire populace caught under a cruel ruler hungry for power, and for a powerful supernatural crown fashioned out a mineral called 'eternium' that said subjects were forced to mine. Now, 5000 years later, Black Adam is a just-awakened mortal-turned-god who isn't too thrilled about the modern world, or being in it. Bridging the gap: the fact that back in the day, one boy was anointed with magic by ancient wizards to defend Kahndaq's people (the word "shazam!" gets uttered, because Black Adam dwells in the same part of the DCEU as 2019's Shazam! and its upcoming sequel), but misusing those skills ended in entombment until modern-day resistance fighters interfere.
The above really is just the preamble. Black Adam is freed by widowed professor Adrianna (Sarah Shahi, Sex/Life), who is trying to fight the Intergang, the mercenaries who've been Kahndaq's new oppressors for decades — and, yes, Black Adam gets caught up in that battle. But being out and about, instead of interred in a cave, gets the attention of the Justice Society. The DCEU already has the Justice League and the Suicide Squad, but it apparently still needs another super-powered crew. Indeed, Suicide Squad and The Suicide Squad's Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, The First Lady) even shows up to help put this new gang together. That's how Hawkman (Aldis Hodge, One Night in Miami), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan, The Misfits), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell, Voyagers) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, the To All the Boys movies) don their caped-crusader getup and try to stop Black Adam, or convince him to stop himself.
Another blatant act of kneeling on this film's part: its new team. The Justice Society isn't new on the page, and some of its number pre-date their patent Marvel counterparts — but reaching the screen now, after the MCU and the X-Men movies, makes this bunch seem like a rehash. Wings like the Falcon, seeing the future like Dr Strange, controlling the weather like Cyclone, changing size like Ant-Man: that's all covered here, and it's impossible not to make comparisons. That Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Cyclone and Atom Smasher are also given little personality doesn't help. The cast behind them visibly commit, and there's a better flick to be made with far more Brosnan waving around a golden helmet in it (a welcomely sillier one, too), but character development clearly wasn't high among screenwriters Adam Sztykiel (Scoob!), Rory Haines (The Mauritanian) and Sohrab Noshirvani's (also The Mauritanian) priorities.
As often proves the case in this genre, because superhero movies have been their own genre for years, the main aim of Black Adam is laying the groundwork for more to come. The titular figure gets an origin story, then an entryway into the broader DCEU, then sets up future franchise appearances, then teases the next step via the obligatory post-credits sting — stop us when this doesn't sound familiar. It's little wonder, then, that everyone around Black Adam feels like filler, including Adrianna's son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui, The Baby-Sitters Club), as well as the villain of the piece. And it's hardly surprising that any attempts at thematic relevance or resonance are thinner than Black Adam's smile. This tries to be a picture about the great responsibility that comes with great power (yep, again), choosing to do the right thing, and the thorniness of being an anti-hero, and also about the merits (or not) of throwing American force around (or not) in other countries; 'tries' is the key word.
Collet-Serra does give Sabongui the best action sequences, though, all involving sneaking out of, skateboarding around and skirting attacks in his apartment/building. There's a tactile sense to these moments — as lively and as lived-in as the film gets, too — that's thoroughly absent in the bland, generic look and feel elsewhere. That Black Adam kneels before and could simply be mashing up parts of 300, Clash of the Titans and Tomb Raider for much of its running time, especially visually, just makes a dull movie duller (the DCEU really can't move on from Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League director Zack Snyder, so it seems). When the feature busts out The Rolling Stones' 'Paint It Black', because of course it does, it's both as obvious a choice as there is and a rare dose of energy. And when it shows iconic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on a TV screen, wishing you were watching that instead comes swiftly — or watching Aquaman's gleeful ridiculousness, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)'s rampant flair, or the non-DCEU weightiness of Joker or The Batman, actually.
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