Black Adam is further proof of the Teflon status inherit in the most financially bankable genre in movie history. 15 years ago, this movie was in development hell. Now, in a post Avengers/Guardians/I can’t believe they made an Ant-Man movie world, it feels like a no-brainer. The genre has proven there’s no storyline too grand, or in this case – no character too obscure. Put Peter Dinklage in a solo Mister Mxyzptlk movie, and it would probably crack $50 million on opening weekend. Which means Black Adam has no pressure to be great, it just has to win enough folks over. It’s only design is to give you enough cartoon-inspired battle sequences, while distracting you from the movie’s faults as much as possible. The problem is, Black Adam isn’t even the most interesting part of his own movie.
Dwayne Johnson finally gets his dream project put to screen, starring as Teth-Adam. Imprisoned for 5,000 years due to the uncontrollable use of his abilities, after being awarded the powers of Shazam, Teth-Adam is granted freedom from a couple of political uprisers. Victimized by the police-state of Kahndaq, it is the hope of Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) that Teth-Adam will return to his homeland of Kahndaq and be the protector the people need against an invading force. However, Teth-Adam has little connection to the present-day Kahndaq, and may have more selfish plans for his new lease on life.
While Adam unleashes a can of whoop-ass on anyone that looks at him wrong, he grabs the attention of the Justice Society, who feel this dangerous threat must be captured immediately. Heading the squad is Hawkman, played by a sublimely intense Aldis Hodge. Rounding out the team are upstarts Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), as well as a scene-stealing Pierce Brosnan as Hawkman’s mentor and friend, Doctor Fate. The team has an array of wonderful powers, with Hawkman as the hand-to-hand fighter, Atom Smasher using his Giant-Man like powers to be the muscle, and Doctor Fate’s sorcery makes him the ace. The quibbles I have is we don’t really see much teamwork, they usually take turns soloing Adam. Also, Cyclone doesn’t do much in battle here; she mostly just flips, spins, and twirls. Nonetheless, for a little known team from the general public’s perspective, this is a good debut that makes you want to see these warriors again.
There’s a sense throughout the film that Black Adam is just a shot-for-shot, live action version of those DC animated straight to home video movies. In fact, the venn diagram of people who enjoy those animated movies, and also love Black Adam, is probably pretty close to a circle. Those animated features have plots that are pretty easy to follow, yet surface-level, and feature a parade of never-ending action mixed with some quirky humor, a host of monologues because we need character development, and an abundance of sincere camp. Also, there’s a macguffin, and there’s no sense of time; it seemingly happens all in one day. I wouldn’t be surprised if this actually was a cartoon first, and they just filmed it thinking no one would notice.
That’s Black Adam in a nutshell, a candy-coated video game, with the cutscene dialogue to boot. Bathed in a gritty tan aestetic, immersive due to its visual relation to the likes of 300 (2007). At times the production is strong and life-like, such as the many grandiose costumes, or something as simple as Adam slowly descending a stair-case. Then there are other times, when the CGI looks like it was shipped from The Mummy Returns (2001). The fights in this movie never stop never stopping. After the first 15 minutes, it’s essentially one long action sequence until the finish; if you were starved for movie violence prior to this film, you’ll be full for the rest of the year.
I find the acting in the movie amusing, especially from The Rock. He plays it like a grump who must slowly be forced to show some emotion, by way of his interactions with Amon and the Justice Society. There’s even a few Terminator 2 parallels in regards to Adam’s relationship with the spirited kid, but the comparisons between the two movies swiftly end there. This is probably as serious as Johnson has taken a role since Pain & Gain, but he’s so rigid, almost literally. There’s a large portion of this movie where his hands are stuck in a seemingly uncomfortable position for a far too long period of time, as if he has carpal tunnel. He never has to do much acting, just speak in a monotone voice if it’s a serious line, add a smirk to the formula if it’s a joke line. But at least that’s more effective than Cyclone’s spins and twirls.
The real interesting part of this movie, the one with more narrative heft, is the internal crisis within Kahndaq. The citizens are oppressed by an all-powerful faction that doubles as an interesting easter egg for future installments. Adrianna, fed up with her people’s lack of autonomy, speaks a lot of truths about how the heroes of the world have failed to offer any support for Kahndaq’s plight. Which is why they embrace Adam, despite some of his troubling world views. It’s the only chance they have at true safety. Yes, Black Adam is too violent and too dangerous, but he has the chance to be their hero, someone that can unite the people. And if he so chooses to assume that role, there’s already a ready-made hand sign to bring the people together; a tribute to the ancient Gods known as Jay-Z and Diamond Dallas Page. An act far more inspiring than Cyclone’s spins and twirls.
This gives the movie an unexpected amount of pathos, even if it’s a shallow backdrop. But along the way, the movie sets up a reveal that plays with and changes the comic book mythos. And that reveal is kind of unnecessary, it does little to acquit Adam for his misdeeds. What is does do, the actual marketing purpose, is to make Adam more likeable, a pivot from the comics and a signal that Black Adam will never be an all-out villain, but something of an anti-hero.
Ultimately, Black Adam’s natural state is that of a good time. The movie is at it’s best when Adam is alternating between fighting or arguing with the Justice Society, most notably Hawkman. It starts to overstay its welcome when the inevitable big bad shows up, and the formality of his defeat puts the movie in auto-pilot. But overall, it’s enjoyable yet forgettable, another building block to the next big movie, with the much talked about mid-credits scene putting the future in clearer view. But Black Adam itself, it’s… fine. You won’t be bored, but you won’t be raving about it when it’s over. Unless is to to talk about Cyclone’s slow motion spins and twirls. Truly a fantastic use of the character’s powers, it left me wanting more.