Film Review: Black Adam; Dwayne Johnson dominates an otherwise shaky action spectacle

Given his imposing stature, it makes sense that all the 196 centimetres of chiselled muscle that make up Dwayne Johnson would be put to good use within the superhero genre.  But just why has it taken so long for the artist formerly billed as The Rock to don a skin-tight suit and get to saving the day? Well, as it turns out, Johnson has been on the cards to do so for the better part of 15 years now; gotta hand it to him for his persistence in getting “The Man in Black” to fruition.

Said “Man” is Black Adam, a violent-minded anti-hero who was originally conceived to debut alongside another superhero – Shazam – whose initial film was meant to act as an introduction for both characters.  Johnson suggested otherwise, knowing the character deserved a solo origin tale, and the rest, as they say, is history; this ultimate film still has links to its Shazam connection through the titular character (Djimon Honsou), whose wizardry was responsible for granting the young Billy Batson his transformative superpower (embodied in the form of Zachary Levi) in his own origin tale.

As this is the first iteration of Black Adam, exposition proves key in the film’s opening, though the Adam Sztykiel/Rory Haines/Sohrab Noshirvani-penned script goes a little too heavy on this notion, with the film’s introductory minutes having an overload mentality that rarely gives up over the course of its 124 minutes.  Within that exposition we learn the plight of the people of Kahndaq, a fictional Middle Eastern city who, in the 2, 600 B.C. set time period, were suffering from oppression under the tyrannical influence of their king.  Black Adam – who is known through most of the film under his original moniker of Teth-Adam – is their ultimate saviour, a young boy who is bestowed God-like powers by the one Shazam.

Though Black Adam wields his almighty power and momentarily liberates his people, his coming is short-lived, eventually vanquished and entombed for 5,000 years; mind you, this is all still within the film’s opening minutes.  Fast forward to present day Kahndaq and the city is politically oppressed, overrun by a crime organisation known as Intergang.  It’s a shame that the writers didn’t take more of an advantage to comment more with such a narrative, as the film’s political temperament could have truly separated it from the run-of-the-mill comic book outing it adheres to.  Alas, presumably under the impression that it’s less commentary and more comic that the audience wants, Black Adam is awoken once more, thanks to freedom fighter Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), unleashing his violent mind-frame in an unsuspecting modern world.

A magical crown made of a powerful substance called Eternium is the film’s macguffin here, and if in the wrong hands a wealth of demonic powers could be released to destroy mankind; you know the drill by now.  Black Adam, initially unaware of what year he has awoken in, displays his extreme anti-heroism upon his re-emergence, offering up the film’s first of many unbridled action sequences that speaks to a more violent temperament than we are used to getting with these types of films; at least compared to MCU as DC offerings tend to push their boundaries a little further when it comes to on-screen carnage.

All of this destruction and the evident nature of how unstoppable Black Adam truly is sets off the authoritative alarm bells of one Amanda Waller (Viola Davis in an enjoyable cameo appearance), opting to reach out to the Justice Society of America – they’re pre-Justice League for anyone playing at home – to assemble a team in order to stop him.  Enter Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), a skilled fighter adorned in a suit that allows him to fly, Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), a talkative young adult-type who can grow exponentially in size, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a young woman who can manipulate wind and sound, and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), an archaeologist equipped with the skill of sorcery.

Whilst much of Black Adam zooms on a pace that is erratic and void of focus, it helps that so much of the cast is committed to the game at hand.  Johnson has never been more brooding, and though his character is quite stoic, he doesn’t forget to have fun in the meantime; him trying to figure out a catchphrase and when to say it offers an amusing running joke throughout.  As for the JSA, as to be expected with so many players, some are left by the wayside, and here it’s Centineo and Swindell that suffer.  Both are fine performers, they even manage to muster some cute chemistry between them, but they feel like they’ve waltzed in to frame from another story, and when opposite the far more forceful Hodge and Brosnan it’s more noticeable.  As for the aforementioned, Hodge emerges as the film’s MVP as the JSA’s leader.  He’s charm personified, and his back-and-forth with Centineo, Brosnan, and Johnson throughout continually pushes him to the forefront.  Brosnan is just absolute grace here.  There’s a delicate nature to his performance that injects a real sense of emotion to proceedings, and though some critics may cry foul of his character’s abilities being similar to that of another superhero Doctor (a certain Strange MCU player), him being created in comic book lore prior means, really, the MCU jacked his style.

When looking at the individual pieces of Black Adam it’s a shame that they all didn’t come together in a better manner.  Clearly a victim of its own ambition in trying to tell Black Adam’s own vast story and introduce the JSA, Jaume Collet-Sera‘s action spectacle feels undone by its inconsistent nature; as seems to be tradition in the comic book movie world the film’s villain is spectacularly undercooked and there’s an anti-climactic feel to the proceedings that further hurts an already questionably assembled production.

I’ve never kept my interest for Dwayne Johnson a remote secret, and I’m not even being biased when I say how good he is in this and that the love for the character is evident, but the sum of all the film’s parts don’t speak cohesively to the passion that fuelled this project.  I suspect we haven’t seen the last of Johnson within the DCEU – the film’s post-credit stinger (and if it hasn’t been spoiled for you, you’re in for an applaud-worthy treat) speaks to certain power dynamics that could be entertainingly explored further down the road – or the JSA either.  The iterations of Atom Smasher and Cyclone deserve better treatment than afforded here, and Hawkman is far too charismatic as embodied by Hodge to be only given one such outing, but as in the same vein of Suicide Squad, there’s an “edited by committee” mentality that appears to have stifled a film that has a much darker, violent beating heart at its centre that wasn’t allowed to be organically fleshed out.

Much has been said about Black Adam reenergising the DCU and changing its course for the future.  I can appreciate Johnson’s enthusiasm for the project and wanting to correct certain injustices, but this film feels far too shaky to make such an impact.  That being said, when certain ingredients within Black Adam‘s recipe prove their taste, it’s difficult to not be a little bit excited, or at least curious, as to where things can travel next; just as long as Hodge’s Hawkman is there for the ride.


Black Adam is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.