Black Adam (United States, 2022)

October 19, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Black Adam Poster

Black Adam embraces many of the worst elements and tropes of the superhero genre, resulting in a loud, discordant experience replete with fist-fights, pyrotechnics, and an overdose of CGI. While attempts are made to maintain a degree of faithfulness to the character’s comic book origins, the result is a half-formed world where voiceovers are necessary to deliver huge chunks of exposition. The plot is scattershot, seemingly without much of a direction until the narrative sharpens during the final 45 minutes. And, instead of allowing Dwayne Johnson’s natural charisma to come to the fore, the requirements of the script demand that he ape Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character (from Terminator 2), right down to the young male sidekick.

Prior to making Black Adam, director Jaume Collet-Serra directed Johnson in Jungle Cruise. That came after spending the better part of a decade working with Liam Neeson on a quartet of mostly forgettable action films: Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, and The Commuter. Although none of those rank among the worst Neeson has done, only Run All Night was worth the time spent sitting through it. The kind of mediocrity evident in those movies accurately sets expectations for Black Adam.

The story opens with a narrated prologue that attempts to encapsulate the origins of the title character with a disjointed series of scenes set in the ancient city of Khandaq. Teth Adam (Johnson) gains his powers as a result of a choice made by his son, the Champion of Khandaq, who is subsequently assassinated. Once he has defeated a king with godly aspirations, Adam vanishes for about 4600 years only to be resurrected in modern times by the efforts of Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui).

Adam’s return attracts the attention of the Justice Society of America (not to be confused with the Justice League), who travel to Khandaq to confront this new threat. Comprised of four somewhat anonymous superheroes (or at least those we haven’t previously seen on-screen in any theatrical DC release), they’re like knock-offs of X-Men and Avengers characters. Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the leader of the JSA, is a cross between Professor X and Doctor Strange. Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) bears a resemblance to either Falcon or Iron Man (take your pick). Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) is a first cousin to Ant-Man. And Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) is a downgraded Storm. A conflict with Black Adam is inevitable; however, since everyone appears to be indestructible, it amounts to little more than a bunch of special effects-enhanced brawling with no resolution. Transformers vibes may occur.

Eventually, when the screenwriters come to the realization that the movie needs something more than the JSA and Black Adam scowling at one another, they decide to add a third act development. Faster than you can say “Shazam!” (which Black Adam mustn’t say lest he lose his powers – PLOT POINT ALERT!), enter the demonic creature Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari). As the last survivor of the old line of Khandaq’s kings, he believes he deserves dominion over all and uses dark magic to get it.

If all of this sounds vaguely exhausting to read, imagine how it is to sit through. The writers pillage high and low to fill in gaps in their screenplay with the most obvious target being the aforementioned T2. However, while the relationship between the Terminator and young John Connor worked in James Cameron’s film, the same cannot be said in Black Adam, where there’s no credible connection between the title character and Amon. And, although much is made of Black Adam being an “anti-hero,” it doesn’t take a savant to discern that the movie provides his journey with an arc of redemption. And, truth be told, he’s never that villainous to begin with. The movie softens Black Adam’s edges to avoid the risk that audiences might be ambivalent about him.

The need to make Black Adam repressed and robotic neuters much of Johnson’s charisma. Pierce Brosnan appears to be enjoying himself, although it’s tough to say whether his smile is a performance or the result of his thinking about his paycheck. Pretty much everyone else is playing their expected roles – no more, no less – and it will be hard to remember any of the supporting actors a few days after seeing this movie, let alone when the seemingly inevitable sequel arrives.

The movie is uncertain about how closely it wants to be associated with the overall DCEU. For the most part, it seems like Black Adam wants an independent existence, even to the point of creating a junior varsity squad (the JSA) to justify the absence of the better-known  Justice League heroes from this skirmish. On the other hand, there are references to the popular DC faces (including a Batman action figure) and a few cameos connecting Black Adam to the pre-existing franchises.

Ultimately, Black Adam contains little that’s new, enervating, or interesting. It seems like it has been assembled out of the discarded bits and pieces of other superhero movies, with characters that are pale clones of their MCU counterparts. The jokey tone, which is intended to mimic the “lighter” approach favored by Marvel movies (in direct opposition to the doom-and-gloom darkness of the Snyderverse), feels forced and juvenile. As the intended start of a new franchise within DC’s Expanded Universe, this is a poor first step.

Black Adam (United States, 2022)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-01-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1