A painfully dull throwback to one of superhero cinema's lowest eras—the 2000s.
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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been trying to get this movie made since 2007.
Gallons of blood, sweat, and tears have poured from his body, day after day, year after year, onto the floor of the Iron Paradise, in order to ensure his foray into the superhero realm was a hit. It wasn’t about money or fame for him. Clearly. He wouldn’t have spent a decade-and-a-half preparing for, guiding, and shamelessly promoting this movie for such superficial reasons.
No, it was about drive; more so, it was about power. He stayed hungry for 15 years, and now, he’s ready to devour. He’s put in the work, the hours, and now it’s time, as I’m sure he and Teth-Adam would tell you, to “take what’s ours.”
Like pretty much everything out of Dwayne Johnson’s mouth these days, most of the previous three paragraphs was empty bullshit designed to sound broadly appealing and ingratiate him to the common, hardworking man. The true part is that Black Adam, the latest addition in DC’s largely humiliating post-Dark Knight film output, has in fact been in development for over a decade-and-a-half, with Johnson having been attached since fall of 2007.
Has all that time spent in various forms of development been worth it? I guess we’ll have to check the box office receipts. Creatively, however, it’s mind-boggling to think that any amount of time or thought was put into this movie—let alone a decade-plus.
Yes, for all the intense grandstanding DJ has done for the last several years, hyping it up as a game-changer for the superhero landscape, Black Adam is not only shockingly bad, but mind-numbingly unambitious. Despite the Rock-hard reputation that precedes it, the film is perfectly content to be a hackneyed cobbling-together of the most tired genre tropes and beats, which appear to have been shuffled into an order for no reason other than that “it’s worked before,” or something.
There’s nothing particularly original about it, and Johnson himself offers no means to make the titular antihero compelling. In fact, he might be one of the worst title characters in a superhero film, ever. The hierarchy of power has changed after all—there’s a new man at the bottom!
The origin of Teth-Adam (his original name) leads us back some 5,000-plus years to the fictional nation of Kahndaq, and a people oppressed by a ruthless king. The king enslaves his people to dig for a rare mineral known as Eternium, in hopes of using it to forge himself a powerful crown that will allow him to channel the power of some demon lords. One slave is chosen by a secretive group of wizards (one of whom is Shazam, the wizard from Shazam!, played again by Djimon Hounsou) to become the people’s champion, and he uses the wizards’ power to vanquish the king. In the wake of the battle, he’s buried deep beneath the city, not seen again for millennia.
In modern day, a group of researchers are searching for the crown in hopes of destroying or hiding it from their new oppressor, Intergang, an organization seeking Eternium for technological advantage. When they discover the crown, they inadvertently wake Teth-Adam, who must now find his place in a Kahndaq he doesn’t recognize. All he knows is that he’s angry, I guess, and will stop at nothing to, er, destroy… things? I dunno, just stay out of his way, I s’pose.
We’re first shown Adam’s power, as a group of Intergang troopers try to stop him from leaving his tomb, via a fight scene set to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” which happens to be the first of several terribly-executed needle-drops. (Brace yourself now for some really lame Kanye later.)
The film quickly reveals that DC is back to its shtick of aping Zack Snyder’s style of violence—the action scenes employ speed ramps and garish color grading to create drama, but lack the visual coherence that Snyder generally ensures. The CGI is, at best, a few years behind the curve, and at worst, silly even for 2007.
Honestly, I can’t recall a single moment of action that wowed me; as someone who watches a lot of this stuff, that’s rare. I guess Adam absolutely melting a dude with lightning was kinda neat.
Meanwhile, the Justice Society of America pings Adam’s emergence from the other side of the globe, and being the valiant do-gooders that they are, decide promptly that they must fly to Kahndaq and beat him up. This esteemed coalition of superpowered warriors is comprised of... exactly one member, Hawkman (Aldis Hodge). He’s boring and unlikeable.
So unlikeable, apparently, that he lives alone in his high-tech Louisiana mansion, and not even his oldest friend(?)—the century-old sorcerer Kent Nelson, a.k.a. Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan, barely)—cares to hang around, except when, like now, the world hangs in the balance. To round out the team, Hawkman scrapes the bottom of the barrel and finds two random kids, Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). Both actors are utterly ~fine~ in their roles, but are given nothing to do.
The quartet of 1-ply archetypes zip off to Kahndaq to “peacefully negotiate the terms of Teth-Adam’s surrender,” which apparently means immediately attacking him and laying waste to the city around them.
I thought Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War kinda already dealt with the issue of superheroes being unnecessarily destructive? The JSA apparently didn’t hear that lesson, as they deal out far more destruction than Adam, despite him being posited (by Johnson and most of the film’s marketing) as the ruthless, cool badass who lives in the grey and doesn’t care about human life. If that’s the wavelength you’re operating on, wouldn’t you want him to be the one who’s calloused to others’ well-being?
Which is another issue. The film can’t decide whether Adam is meant to be cool because he’s a hardass, or a silly fish out of water, or an empathetic brute with a heart of gold. It settles primarily on the lattermost idea, which just feels like an incredibly easy out in a movie that sells itself on being a game-changer to introduce the world to a new class of antihero. Johnson is entirely out of his element here, barely even able to appear imposing, despite his massive physique and granite-carved brow.
Hopefully, if nothing else, Black Adam will show Johnson for the mechanical bull that he is. Without the carefully calibrated, tough-guy boardroom speak of his social media presence, Johnson appears lost on-screen. He can’t really joke around, flash his pearly smile, or toothlessly make fun of his macho persona like he would in something like Jumanji. With Adam, all he can do is brood, and he isn’t very good at it.
I’m sure he had no help from director Jaume Collet-Serra, who leaves absolutely no stamp on this film besides incoherence. Every scene is too short and too perfunctory to give any characters or emotions the room to breathe. People make seemingly random decisions and changes in opinion simply for the sake of moving on to the next scene. It’s all so empty.
When people chide Marvel for saturating the market and dumbing down the film industry, I have to wonder if they’re even seeing things like Black Adam. Even Marvel’s worst output tends to show a notable, admirable degree of creative thought or ideation on the part of its creators. Usually, at least the main characters are compelling on an emotional level, even when the visuals and plots start to blur together.
There’s none of that here. There’s no care. No enthusiasm, passion, or unique quality. The “he’s not a hero” angle—the film’s selling point—is basically a sham. It’s everything people love to hate about superhero movies these days. It’s everything people should hate about them! It’s all the worst qualities of the genre, distilled into a single film. Maybe that’s its best quality.
Black Adam almost feels like it was made in 2007 and put on ice, entombed like its protagonist until someone eventually decided that it was time for the film to emerge.
Great job, Dwayne. 15 years to make a superhero film that’s less pleasant than Morbius.