By Josh Reilly B. and George Bate
On November 2, 2007, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was cast as Black Adam, the DC anti-hero and archnemesis of Shazam. Almost 15 years later and Johnson finally makes his debut as the character, voicing that Black Adam’s theatrical debut will mark a change in “the hierarchy of DC Universe.”
The landscape of films and television based on DC Comics characters has certainly changed since 2007. Two actors have won Academy Awards for playing The Joker, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy came to a conclusion, the entire Snyder Cut movement led to a new version of Justice League being released, the Arrowverse of television shows on The CW has started and (seemingly) finished, and Superman has emerged, disappeared, and emerged again. Behind the scenes, Walter Hamada recently exited his role as President of DC Films, Batgirl was unexpectedly scrapped, and Dwayne Johnson has interestingly positioned himself as an emerging creative leader for the franchise.
Amidst the ups and downs of the DC Universe, Black Adam finally arrives in theaters. But questions remain: has DC really turned a corner with this movie? Is this the start of a new wave of DC films? Quality wise, the answer is complicated, heavily dependent on one’s own point of view on the ever-divisive Zack Snyder films, still relevant to this universe even now.
Black Adam follows Teth Adam (played by Johnson), a person bestowed with God-like powers in ancient Kahndaq who is imprisoned for misusing his powers. Five-thousand years pass and Black Adam is awakened and soon faces an array of modern-day heroes in the Justice Society.
Conceptually, Black Adam works. Johnson’s Teth Adam is traditionally a villain in the comics, but is portrayed as more of an anti-hero here (not unlike Tom Hardy’s Venom in the recent Sony movies). The idea of a DC blockbuster positioning an anti-hero in the forefront is smart given the success seen when the franchise has been bolder, darker, and set itself apart from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Adam also offers an opportunity to introduce a supporting cast of famous comic book characters like Doctor Fate and Hawkman, while interconnecting with previous projects with the inclusion of Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller.
Unfortunately, very little of the promise in Black Adam‘s premise is actualized. The opening minutes of the film are a bombardment of poorly delivered exposition and world-building that establish a shaky foundation for the film that follows. Commendable in its lack of glaring plot holes that have plagued some previous DC films aside, Black Adam is unnecessarily confusing. Being plummeted into the world of Kahndaq with little orientation makes for an experience that feels like you’ve missed a first act. This issue is amplified upon the introduction of the Justice Society, who make their debut here with no exposition or explanation whatsoever. Black Adam throws many elements into the mix and yet fails to explain any of them in a satisfying manner.
Highlighting broader issues with the connectivity of the DC Universe, Black Adam‘s world building is as convoluted as it is inconsistent. The Justice Society exist, but there is no mention of the Justice League by name. Superman seemingly exists out there, but does not intervene when Black Adam comes on the scene. A young boy has pictures of Batman, a character who has been depicted as a murderous vigilante in this universe, on his wall. Black Adam feels like it is situated in an entirely different universe from the one established in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, yet the line from the studio is that it’s still all set in the same world. The pseudo-reset that The Flash will seemingly provide next year isn’t even here yet, only adding to the confusion.
The script is one of the core reasons why Black Adam fails to take off. No one is expecting Black Adam to revolutionize the superhero genre, but it is startling how it lacks anything unique to say. Overused plot tropes, poor pacing, and dull cliches are numerous in a film utterly devoid of surprises. In this sense, it feels like a charmless 90s action movie that Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone would have passed on.
Jaume Collet-Serra helms Black Adam after previously collaborating with Dwayne Johnson on the mediocre Jungle Cruise. Collet-Serra is perhaps best known for directing a series of Liam Neeson B-action movies, such as Run All Night, The Commuter, Non Stop and Unknown. Collet-Serra brings these sensibilities to Black Adam and manages to direct a serviceable superhero film. Black Adam is heavily action-oriented, even to the extent that the film essentially feels like one prolonged action sequence with little or no breathing room. For this reason, Black Adam might be more appealing to a general audience of action movie fans than superhero fanatics.
Supported by Collet-Serra’s directing, one aspect of Black Adam that stands out is the way in which Kahndaq is portrayed, at least aesthetically. With cinematography from Lawrence Sher, whose work on Joker earned him an Academy Award nomination, Black Adam has a visual style and color palette that is distinct from the superhero films that have come before it. The production design borrows from the Indiana Jones films and, in many ways, Black Adam plays like a action-packed Indiana Jones film, albeit one far less charming and innovative.
Regarding performances, Johnson is perfectly serviceable as the title character. Johnson’s passion for the character is evident in every interview the actor gives and some of this passion makes its way onto the big screen. The script from Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani fails Johnson however, giving him not much to do but scowl, deliver an occasional decent one-liner, and throw mindless henchmen in the air. Aldis Hodge and Pierce Brosnan are good additions to the DC Universe though as Hawkeye and Doctor Fate play unexpectedly sizable roles in the film. Indeed, at some points it feels like a more appropriate title would be Black Adam vs. the Justice Society.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be a modern day superhero film without a post-credits scene and Black Adam is no exception. Strangely, ahead of the film’s release, Johnson has been surprisingly revelatory about what his film’s post-credits scene entails. This tactic likely will mean Black Adam sells more tickets, but it means that even down to its very last frames every moment of the film is frustratingly predictable. Regarding the scene itself, it’s obviously incredible to see Henry Cavill ‘return’ as Superman amidst so much ambiguity as to who would don the suit and cape down the line. However, Superman’s inclusion brings to light broader issues with the DC Universe that Black Adam is still struggling with. This is a cinematic universe that has struggled to find its footing from the get-go and is desperately in need of some kind of cohesive vision moving forward.
Black Adam fails to take liftoff in what is ultimately a mundane and convoluted film. Johnson is serviceable, if not predictable, in the lead role, and director Jaume Collet-Serra crafts a visually appealing, action-packed film. The additions of Hodge and Brosnan as Hawkeye and Doctor Fate are highlights in an otherwise predictable film that fails to resonate emotionally and does little to excite about future of this franchise.