Movie Review: Black Adam
If the appeal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its polished sheen, the appeal of the DC Extended Universe is its scrappy messiness. On both the big screen and the small one, DC’s live-action adaptations often feel designed by committee and held together by duct tape and prayers. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Black Adam, the long-awaited superhero star vehicle for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The messiest superhero movie this side of Morbius, Black Adam nevertheless has a certain charm and even a few intriguing — if not downright radical — ideas on its margins. It’s not an excellent movie in the conventional sense, certainly not when it comes to basic tenets of editing, writing and character development. But it’s compelling in its own way as a kind of weird, earnest crowd-pleaser with a surprising amount of heart to complement its bone-snapping PG-13 action.
By design (although that doesn’t become clear until much later in the film), the origin story of Johnson’s all-powerful Teth-Adam is somewhat convoluted. He lived as a slave in the ancient city of Kahndaq, until he found himself imbued with powers from the same wizards who granted Billy Batson his abilities in 2019’s Shazam!.
Teth-Adam didn’t get much time to enjoy his new superhuman skills, however, as he was almost immediately entombed for 5,000 years. He’s eventually reawakened in modern-day Kahndaq, a fictional nation that’s under military occupation by mercenaries hilariously known as Intergang (say that 5 times without giggling, I dare you).
But wait, there’s more! The newly awakened Teth-Adam soon finds himself mixed up with three opposing forces: a trio of good locals who see him as their protector, a bad local who wants to exploit his powers and a group of superheroes known as the Justice Society who want to send him to superhero jail for his unsanctioned use of lethal force. Throw in a cute kid, some mysterious backstory, a smattering of appearances for Suicide Squad mastermind Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and a literal trip to hell, and Black Adam often seems like five separate movies crammed into its relatively swift two-hour runtime.
Indeed, Black Adam is a movie with a major identity crisis. Reportedly the film had to be heavily edited in order to avoid an R-rating, and the final product is deeply disjointed and tonally all over the place. But the upside is that if you don’t like one of the many films Black Adam is trying to be at that moment, you don’t have to wait long for a new one to take over.
One of those is a fairly fun riff on Terminator 2 as Teth-Adam teams up with archeologist/ freedom fighter Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), her pre-teen son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) and her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), who have long been looking for a homegrown hero who can help them throw off the shackles of Intergang’s (heh) occupation by any means necessary. Another is a sort of “Avengers” -lite in which heroes Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) join forces to capture Teth-Adam, who they’ve already written off as a villain. Of these, the standout is Brosnan, who delivers a moving portrait of an immortal who is tired of seeing the future and thinking back on his past.
His Dr Fate looks at those who can live in the present with a mixture of melancholy, wisdom, and envy.
MacGuffin-heavy plot mechanics aside, the real stakes here are the battle for Teeth-Adam’s soul and the question of if/how he’s going to adapt his centuries-old ethics about vengeance and violence for the modern world. And where “Black Adam” really springs to life is its willingness to allow multiple perspectives and points of view to co-exist among its supporting players. Though we’re meant to like the Justice Society — who are thinly drawn but charismatically played by an engaging ensemble of actors — the movie’s most cheerworthy moment comes when Adrianna tells them off for ignoring Kahndaq’s plight for decades, only to step in as self-proclaimed heroes when they need something from the region.
If you’re willing to extrapolate from the studio-approved comic bookiness of it all, Black Adam takes a pretty radical stance about the validity of violence as a tactic to end oppression, even as it celebrates other means of resistance and (mostly) avoids glorifying violence for violence’s sake.
Of course, it’s an idea that would work better if Teth-Adam actually felt morally torn rather than just poorly defined. In truth, the Rock is weirdly cast in this role — one he spent over 15 years pursuing. Unable to pull from his usual bag of comedic tricks, he’s stuck in a mode that’s less morally grey antihero than just a nebulous blank slate. But when he succeeds, it’s as an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style straight man in a fish-out-of-water dark comedy with some unexpected pathos snuck into its third act.
Does Black Adam eventually devolve into one of those weightless, CGI-heavy final battles? Of course. But Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra has some fun along the way first, showily aping Zack Snyder’s over-the-top slomo aesthetic, even if he only occasionally finds anything truly fresh to add to the mix. (A tightly contained bedroom fight is a highlight.) Still, for all its messiness, Black Adam has the energy of a movie made by people who are invested in what they’re doing and at least loosely interested in injecting some new thematic ideas into the DCEU. It’s not the best live-action film DC has produced. But it just might be the purest distillation of the cinematic universe’s strange, scrappy spirit.