Black Adam is cotton candy – it’s cloyingly sweet, disappears after a few seconds, and nothing that full of sugar and chemicals can be good for you in the long run if you eat it constantly. This is another entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU, MCU, who can keep up these days), and to paraphrase Shakespeare, it’s a lot of sparks, lightning, and glowering that in the end doesn’t add up to much. It feels like a movie that was designed in a lab as opposed to any other piece of art – it’s calculated, deliberate, rarely goes outside the lines, and so very, very corporate.
I know that this character is important to Dwayne Johnson — he’s been wanting to do a Black Adam movie for more than a decade — and I can see how on the page this would excite him a little bit. I remember early in Dwayne Johnson’s career, that while he wanted to be an iconic action star in the Schwarzenegger/Stallone mode, that he was trying to do something a little different, a little more human, a little more comedic.
The Rundown is a goofy action movie and a lot of the fun of it was watching Dwayne Johnson’s character get overwhelmed by his circumstances, and Johnson was very much poking fun at the action movies of the 1980s, while also adding his own personal stamp to the material. Similarly, in a movie like Gridiron Gang (and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it – it may be my favorite Dwayne Johnson performance), Johnson shows real vulnerability and a genuine emotion that didn’t feel like it was a math equation.
That’s what’s frustrating about his work here as Black Adam – you can see his excitement, but he can’t translate that to a performance that we can embrace. You may think that’s the nature of the character, that he’s meant to be something of an “anti-hero,” but every time the character might open up into something more resonant, Johnson pulls back, does his customary smirk/glower, and the movie shrinks that much more.
Even when Johnson’s character “loses,” he doesn’t really lose. There’s no decision in the story that feels spontaneous or surprising, and nothing in Johnson’s performance feels like we’re watching a human being with real emotions. The arc of Black Adam as a character could be seen from space – it’s all so charted and predictable.
The plot of Black Adam is Superhero 101; even the opening narration lets us know right away that there’s homework coming. A rebellion in the kingdom of Kahndaq 5000 years ago leads a slave boy to the powers of the Council of Wizards (see Shazam! for more information on this – Black Adam manages to take all that mythology but none of its goofy charm).
There’s an evil, mystical crown, a completely generic villain, and a lot of computer programmers furiously typing and rendering action sequences. Black Adam feels like a movie that, at one time, may have been exciting and fresh, but years of corporate content decisions and Johnson’s refusal to break out of his template have sanded all the edges off to give us an inert product.
There are a few bright moments, however. I really enjoyed the performances of Aldis Hodge as Hawkman and Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate. Sure, the characters are garage sale Iron Man/Doctor Strange – and let’s face it, all these movies are DC chasing after the Marvel gold in some shape or form, to varying degrees of success – but Hodge and Brosnan bring a lot of charm and charisma to the parts, and they have a nice chemistry and balance together.
I would happily watch a Hawkman movie. Hodge gives us something we don’t often see in a superhero movie – perspective. Similarly, Brosnan looks as if he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s supposed to be in and gives us the appropriate amount of ham to let us know he’s in on the joke.
The movie is at its best when we’re with the Justice Society (so we have the Justice Society and the Justice League, so I’m anticipating the Justice Bridge Club to be next, so make it happen, DC), and I also had fun with Quintessa Swindell‘s Cyclone and Noah Centineo;s Atom Smasher.
I’m not as familiar with DC’s characters and stories as I am with Marvel’s – I’ve always been a Marvel guy. But what I’ve always enjoyed about the DC films, although it rarely happens, is when the films understand where they’re coming from. Comic book movies at their best do two things – they can inspire the audience in some way, but they also have no problem embracing their pulp roots.
The best ones don’t take themselves so seriously, but also understand that out there somewhere in the audience that there’s an eleven-year-old kid who is absolutely floored by what they are watching. Black Adam too often forgets the joys and experiences of that little kid, instead playing for a crowd that is always jaded and never satisfied. And maybe, at last, in the words of Danny Glover, I’m getting too old for this sh*t.
There are moments in Black Adam that remember how gloriously dumb all this superhero nonsense can be, and that’s when the movie sputters to life. There’s a mid-credit scene that’s a bit of fun for what it means for these movies, but it’s also a little sad – it feels like Dwayne Johnson had to bring in the real big guns to keep this movie relevant to the rest of the DCEU.
But for most of the runtime, Black Adam is an exploration of egos – of Dwayne Johnson’s refusal to find inspiration in any of this, where every character beat is calculated to the point of inertia, and while I can see how Johnson could be excited by playing this character at one time, that feels like a long time ago.
I miss the Dwayne Johnson of Be Cool, The Rundown, Gridiron Gang, and Pain & Gain – the willingness to subvert the standard action hero image to find something truthful and fun and different. Now, it’s all just advertising. Black Adam is a two-hour-long diversion – things explode, or get punched, we get the classic Johnson smirk, and nothing changes. Maybe that’s how people want it. But not me.
BLACK ADAM REVIEW SCORE: 5.5 OUT OF 10
Warner Bros. Pictures will release Black Adam in theaters on Friday, October 21. The film is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language.