'Black Adam' review: Dwayne Johnson anti-hero DC flick vaporizes brain cells
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Another big, brawny and completely airless superhero vehicle headlined by a major global superstar, DC’s cinematic woes continue with “Black Adam.” Spearheaded and manufactured as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s first major soirée in a superheroic franchise, Warner Bros. has spared no expense locking down the mega wattage A-lister for future appearances, but this solo outing continues a horrendous track record where the actor plays the most uninteresting people on the planet. “Black Adam” manages to hit new lows for the beleaguered DC universe, which is saying something considering this is a franchise that peaked when it released a director's cut of a movie nobody cared about.
Aside from “Pain & Gain” and “Southland Tales,” Dwayne Johnson rarely challenges himself, let alone takes creative risks. Despite earlier turns in “The Rundown,” “Gridiron Gang” and “Walking Tall” suggesting otherwise, The Rock pivoted and made an acting career out of reboots, spinoffs, and sequels. If they’re not sequels, then they involve a large CGI creature (“Rampage”) or feature a catastrophic, also heavily CGI’d, environmental event (“San Andreas”). “Black Adam” continues the trend of the emotive actor standing on his mark, looking brooding and muscular, but not actually saying anything. For large stretches of “Black Adam” he barely mutters a word nor does he react to his surroundings. I’d like to think it’s because he was standing in front of a blue screen, amid all of his other professional obligations, and was acting opposite tennis balls. Or maybe the script by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani always treat dialogue like poorly rendered cutscenes from a video game? Either way, it’s a lose, lose.
Trying to tweak the “Venom” anti-hero formula with the same snarky sarcasm, cheesy gags, and groan-inducing one liners,“Black Adam,” a story about an ancient, resurrected WWE built meta-human, wisely plays into its strengths. Like The Rock dismantling goons and yeeting them into oblivion or trying to replicate The Avengers camaraderie with the second-rate “Justice Society.” An opening prologue that extends well past 20-minutes explains in detail how 5,000 year ago, in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Kahndaq, a young boy named Teth-Adam (Johnson) fought back against his oppressors with the super strength, flight abilities, and lighting powers bestowed upon him by wizards.
Cut to present date and we meet Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) who is searching for a mystical crown composed of magical Eternium, which, if put in the wrong hands, could make Earth a living hell. It’s not easy to roam the streets of Kahndaq searching for answers either as the city has been overrun with a group of neo-imperialists called the Intergang, who also have a vested interest in finding this crown. On her journeys, however, is where Adrianna accidentally awakens the hooded Adam with a fiery vengeance and he happily dispatches (and dismembers) her enemies in a silly, obnoxious wallop of a scene. After that, Black Adam is content with smoldering and moving in slow motion while the “Justice Society” (no, not the Justice League!) tries surrendering him to Amanda Waller (Viola Davis - looking over this series in a thankless cameo).
It doesn’t go well for the Society, which consists of Hawkman (Alids Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centieno), and who’s number one priority is stopping Adam’s destruction, except it’s hard to take them seriously when they feel like second stringers from the “X-Men” and “Deadpool” roster. The movie desperately needs a marquee hero and there isn’t a Batman or Superman in sight. Considering the main character says “Shazam!” about a dozen times in order to wield the Black Adam power, I was shocked Zachary Levi didn’t show up for a shameless cameo. Of the new characters introduced, Doctor Fate is the only interesting hero of the bunch, a Doctor Strange crossbred with Professor Xaiver type who can see visions of the future. Otherwise, the body-enlarging Atom Smasher, weather manipulating Cyclone, and flying Hawkman aren’t anything to write home about. Brosnan and Hodge deserve serious Pulitzer prize consideration for pulling any sliver of emotion from a script that doesn’t give them a-lot to say.
Most of “Black Adam” is a series of loud, visual effects heavy smackdowns that look rendered on a PC. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed Johnson in the ill-fated “Jungle Cruise”) moves swiftly between several chaotic action sequences and when the movie ends, it’s a stunning achievement as you feel like you’ve both watched an entire movie and absorbed nothing. This movie obliterates brain cells and when the patently forced needle drop of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” blares while Dwayne Johnson manhandles a gigantic missile, I wept for humanity. We used to be a society.
Nevertheless, “Black Adam” is obviously a test run for the DC cinematic universe’s enduring longevity and the strength of Dwayne Johnson’s star power. I’m sure the numbers will show enough justification on Warner Bros. Discovery’s part to keep investing in the continuity of the franchise (evident by a buzzy post-credit scene), but artistically and creatively, DC is still slacking. The new Warner Bros CEO David Zaslav made headlines this year for abruptly canceling the already finished DC flick “Batgirl” following poor test screenings, saying only the best movies would warrant justification in theaters or a berth on HBO Max. I’m not sure what cut of “Black Adam” he saw, but I would have loved to see that movie instead.
BLACK ADAM is now playing in theaters.