Black Adam

Release: Friday, October 21, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Adam Sztykiel; Rory Haines; Sohrab Noshirvani 

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Aldis Hodge; Pierce Brosnan; Noah Centineo; Quintessa Swindell; Sarah Shahi; Marwan Kenzari; Bodhi Sabongui; Mohammed Amer

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

 

***/*****

Justice-seeking takes another dark turn with the arrival of Black Adam, the latest chapter in the sprawling (some might say stumbling) DCEU, a franchise known for its less sunny outlook and that has at times suffered for a lack of humor. So it’s almost counterintuitive that things do not exactly lighten up with the introduction of Dwayne Johnson in the title role. However his somber performance really works and on the whole the movie does as well, despite some familiar issues.

Originally making a cameo appearance in 2019’s Shazam!, the oversized anti-hero now gets his own standalone film, one where concerns surrounding True Champions and fake heroes seem not too far removed from the D-grade scripts The Rock played up to cheesy perfection back in the day. But this grim tale finds him in much lower spirits, his attitude and temperament the product of a character who has suffered maybe more than his share of pain. Even if Johnson is morose and unsmiling, he’s also really good in an atypical role and it’s not as though Black Adam is devoid of humor. He’s surrounded by a number of fun characters who keep the tone from spiraling into a melodramatic bore.

Black Adam tells a simple tale of choice as the titular character (introduced as Teth-Adam) struggles within himself to become either a force for good or a tool of destruction. It’s a bit of a slow and wobbly start, but when do openers burdened with the responsibility of summarizing thousands of years’ worth of backstory ever come off convincing? In 2600 BC, in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq, a young slave boy, endowed with the powers of the ancient wizards, ostensibly frees his people after slaying the despotic King Ahk-Ton, earning his accolades as the city’s heroic champion. 

Yet a present-day Kahndaq still faces oppression in the form of modern crime syndicate Intergang and the debate still rages over whether Adam’s actions were noble or vengeful. Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), an archaeologist sympathetic to his legend, stumbles upon the tomb of Teth-Adam and, believing she’s freeing him from wrongful entombment, recites an incantation. But someone’s woken up on the wrong side of the sarcophagus, an enraged Adam laying waste to virtually all life in the vicinity in a hair-raising intro that stands among the DCEU’s best. 

The trio of screenwriters does well to keep the events of Black Adam contained within a fast-moving, action-packed narrative. Unlike other chapters, concessions to other stories and properties are downplayed in favor of the spectacle everyone has paid to see, and that’s undoubtedly Dwayne Johnson coming in to his own as a hero with a hardened edge. A rare connective tissue comes in the form of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising her role as the world’s friendliest government agent) who is starkly against the idea of Adam roaming around in the world and so dispatches the Justice Society of America to subdue him.

Not to be confused with DC’s all-star ensemble which made its comics début as the Justice League a good two decades later, the Justice Society — Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) — kick the excitement up a notch when they ask for peaceful cooperation but instead and predictably meet violent resistance. Somewhere between foe and friend, the Society, notably Brosnan’s stoic Kent Nelson and Hodge’s hot-headed Carter Hall, gives Black Adam a beating heart and a welcomed sense of humor.

Their collective abilities (my personal favorites being Atom Smasher’s lack of grace and the seemingly endless possibilities the Helmet of Fate provides) are eventually fully realized when the film’s “true threat” arises — a misnomer perhaps, given Black Adam‘s familiar failure to provide a villain commensurate in influence and/or intrigue. Either or would have been great. In this case, Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari), a feral beast who derives his bloodlust from Hell’s most powerful demons, pops up toward the end as if out of a Trey Parker/Matt Stone creation — the crude design not exactly doing favors for yet another generic power-monger. 

In culminating in a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque climax, a literal hell-on-earth sequence that sees legions of minions wreaking havoc on Kahndaq, Black Adam unfortunately hits a low point late, embracing the worst impulses of the superhero genre. However, the screen sludge that results is not enough to kill the joy of seeing Johnson rise to the occasion, nor the goodwill that the movie overall has built up to that point.

Nice threads

Moral of the Story: One of the better installments in the up-and-down DC Extended Universe, Black Adam mostly does its job with keeping the audience entertained with a lot of action and visual spectacle and balancing fun with some more serious themes of slavery and oppression. But unfortunately it is another superhero movie where the bad guy seems to be more or less forgotten about. Dwayne Johnson clearly takes his role seriously here, even if the portrayal (from what I understand) veers away from the comics version of the character. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “Yeah, Mom. Who do you want to teach me violence?”

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