For a few years now, but what feels like an eternity, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has been making promises. Well, he’s been making one promise, over and over again.
“The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change.”
The slogan refers to Black Adam, a comic-book antihero and movie adaptation that’s been tumbling through the Hollywood pipeline for over 15 years, lengthy even for industry standards. Facing a myriad of production stop-and-starts (most recent and major of which being the pandemic), it fell on America’s most charismatic mineral to keep the fire burning, a challenge he took on with true spirit and absurd relentlessness, see: every fourth instagram post over the last half-decade. As it turns out, in director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam, Johnson makes good on his promise, delivering a character that stands against Superman himself as one of the most powerful characters in the DCEU, though all this focus on shifting hierarchies comes, perhaps, at the cost of an…actual..good…movie?
We open in 2600 BC, where the citizens of Kahndaq have been enslaved by a corrupt king. A young slave boy, Teth Adam, is given the chance to free his people when wizards imbue him with the power of Shazam. Teth moves swiftly and aggressively, killing the king before being imprisoned by the wizards for the destruction he wreaks in the process. He awakens centuries later to find Kahndaq under oppression once more, this time by crime syndicate and terrorist group the Intergang. His subsequent assault on the oppressors wins the adoration of his countrymen, but attracts the unwanted attention of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and the Justice Society Of America.
Besides Avengers: Endgame, which I maintain is the first and only modern ‘classic’ pure-blooded comic-book movie (not including animated masterpieces The Incredibles, Into The Spider-Verse and Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm), the best of the comic-book adaptations have historically been those that revel in an existing genre framework; Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an espionage thriller; Logan is a western; The Dark Knight, a crime thriller. Pre-MCU iterations of the sub-genre-turned-phenomena carried a real-rooted cinematic style that has only grown richer with age – the likes of Raimi, Nolan, Burton, and more. A failure to define itself in a similar vein is why a film like Spider-Man: No Way Home plays like a clunky SNL skit, and Black Adam feels devoid of any concrete personality whatsoever.
It’s not that Black Adam is boring and nonsensical (it is both of those things), but it looks and feels like it was made by a Dall-e style superhero film generator, billed as a cinematic triumph “for the fans” but playing more like the movie version of the cockroach-filled protein bars they feed the back of the train in Snowpiercer – sickly, artificial sustenance from a franchise factory-line. No performances stand out (though with dialogue so cliché and unremarkable, can you really blame the actors?), no shots dazzle, the narrative moves along the beaten track with a dreary, predictable plod, and it tries to say a lot all the while saying nothing at all.
The movie works hard to establish Adam’s simple philosophy: don’t pull any punches. He murders a few dozen Intergang goons – some he flings into buildings, rockfaces and sand dunes, others he zaps to ashes with bolts of electricity. He’s a killer, and the movie makes a point of it time and time again. So, why does it still feel like it’s holding back? In a cinematic universe where we’ve seen Batman find increasingly brutal ways of snapping a petty thug’s neck (one of which he accomplishes by launching an armoured car at a poor delinquent’s head), it feels derivative that we should ever question Black Adam’s ethos of “kill first, don’t ask questions” in the way the movie seems to want us to.
The Justice Society of America are positioned as the voice of reason against Adam’s ruthless nature, sent into the fray to stop him killing more oppressors and bringing Kahndaq to its knees (it’s worth noting that the citizens of Kahndaq are quite literally hailing Adam as their champion by this point). In their words: “There’s no we. There are only heroes and villains. Heroes don’t kill.” As simple and tone-deaf as it gets. Resistance fighter Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) asks the group why they’re only arriving now to help the crumbling country, as opposed to any point during their last several decades under oppressive rule. A very good, very valid argument that is quickly shoved to one side and never brought up again. Ignorance is bliss.
Maybe this is Collett-Serra’s point, to highlight the numbing egocentricity of the West and their stunning ability to make things worse by trying to make things better, while patronising the rest of the world in the process. The JSA fumble around Kahndaq battling Adam in the name of justice, though they make more of a danger to the city than he ever did. There’s something to that idea – The Boys took it and turned it into a smash-hit TV show after all – unfortunately, here the message is half-baked, the characters lack nuance and as a result the whole thing comes across as pointless as a Stevie Wonder blink.
The Rock plays Adam like every other character he’s been playing for the last 10 years, this time in the obligatory spandex, and with more brood than smoulder – perhaps a hark back to his people’s champ days. He looks the part, bringing a hulking physical presence ripped straight from his comic counterpart, though a lacklustre script that shows no interest in exploring the character beyond your run-of-the-mill anti-hero backstory relegates Johnson’s performance to nothing more than a glorified fancast.
Supporting him are a host of fresh and familiar faces doing the most with the little they’ve been given, from veteran Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate – DC’s answer to Doc Strange – to Netflix loverboy Noah Centineo as bumbling tryhard Atom Smasher. Bodhi Sabongui plays Amon, a young superhero fanatic who adopts Adam as his new role model, teaching him the importance of a strong hero name and catchphrase a la John Conner and Arnie in Terminator 2, while Merwan Kenzani’s militant intergang leader Sabbac is a somehow more forgettable villain than his turn as handsome Jafar in Aladdin (2018).
We end with the return of Henry Cavill’s Superman, a twist that no one involved in the process of making or marketing this movie made any effort trying to conceal, nor has encouraged further discretion for the sake of those who haven’t yet seen it. Why would they? The reveal is the reason; if you aren’t teasing something bigger, then why make movies in the first place? The sad reality is that without another promise of things to come, Black Adam would fade like so many others into the pantheon of modern blockbuster oblivion.
On that note – a shameless plug! If you like your movies a little more arthouse, check out our review of Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave, playing in UK Cinemas now.