Those crazy fools, they finally did it. They put The Rock in a superhero movie. Mix the biggest action superstar with the most over-the-top, effects-driven genre and you have Black Adam, face-meltingly spectacular on the big screen.
It’s the ultimate blockbuster, for better or for worse.
A box office hit in theaters now, Black Adam is a lot of fun if you’re into that sort of thing. Featuring a humorously murderous anti-hero that puts an irreverent spin on the superhero formula, the film sees Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson play a rare villain(s) role and let loose to create carnage with a telling smile for the camera.
From the main character’s skull-crushing entrance and through the absurdly violent riff on the super-speed sequences from the X-Men movies, director Jaume Collet-Serra revels in dishing out death and destruction (but, you know, in a fun way). From beginning to end (inclBlack Adam is a guilty pleasure that isn’t the least bit guilty.
Story-wise, Johnson plays Tet-Adam, an ancient champion of an eternally oppressed (fictional) Middle Eastern nation called Kandak. An introductory voice-over introduces us to his past, his powers, and of course, the magical superweapon that everyone will be after. (This time it’s the crown of something or other.)
Waking up in the present day, Adam is confused by newfangled progressive ideas like not melting people down into skeletons because they think he’s funny. A team of superheroes called the Justice Society is sent to take him down, plus an army of mercenaries with endless ammo and a council of demons who want to unleash hell. It won’t surprise you that things get very strong very quickly and basically stay that way for two hours.
Johnson is the titular anti-hero, but this much-delayed film sees a whole squadron of DC Comics characters make the leap from comic book pages to the big screen. Noah Cintineo, Quintessa Swindle, Aldis Hodge, and former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan are all in the running as the Justice Society of America, a bunch of DC Comics superheroes you may know and love—but probably don’t. They’re hardly in the league of Superman or Spider-Man, let’s put it that way.
With so many new and possibly unknown superheroes crammed into one movie, you might wonder how the filmmakers manage to present them with a meaningful, organic narrative that connects emotionally with — oh wait, no, they’re not even trying. The superheroes just walk in, give a one-line description of their superpowers, then get on this random inexplicable super-jet and off we go.
DC movies are often guilty of relying on your knowledge of comics to understand the characters, which is fine for some of the target audience, but won’t help DC’s quest to reach Marvel’s huge core audience. And no movie should come with homework.
We have to admit that we’ve reached the point in superhero movie dominance where we can probably handle a new squad of incredibly powerful randos in every movie. But it would be nice if they gave us something to fall in love with. Aside from the odd blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of dialogue (Brosnan mutters something about watching planes fly towards World War I), no one is created with a story, personality, goals, or flaws. Each character is defined by what kind of prank they do when they hit people. Hodge is a Hawkman (wings, angry banter); Brosnan is Dr. Faith (magic, flashing banter); Swindell is a Cyclone (wind, no jerk); and Centineo is Atom Smasher (giant, awkward tease).
Brosnan brings much-needed gravitas even while going half-speed – a helmet hides his face for the action scenes – while Centineo combines Mark Ruffalo-style confusion with Tom Holland-style charm. Swindell is sadly underused and Hodge spends most of his time shouting. Among the supporting cast, Sarah Shahi’s capable rebel drives much of the story. As her teenage son, Bodhi Sabongui is clearly skateboarding out of some totally radical early 90s movie, but Mohamed Amer’s clumsy sidekick is a notable highlight.
The large cast oddly pushes Johnson to the sidelines of his own film for a surprisingly large portion of the film. On top of that, a digital double of Johnson is impressively included in the action sequences. Why cast this ex-pro wrestler, one of the most physical dudes in show business, and then fill the fights with overly edited CGI?
Away from the CGI punches, Johnson’s acting skills aren’t exactly stretched. He is mostly required to outline and deliver unflappable one-liners. Tet-Adam spends a lot of time staring at a statue, suggesting a certain vulnerability as the character struggles with the weight of his own myth. But Black Adam is a pretty safe bad guy – sure, he’s not afraid to throw a henchman into a mountain (played for laughs), but Johnson (and his digital counterpart) lacks the seething rage and unpredictable menace that would make Black Adam’s really scary (compared to, say, the disturbing seething instability that Joaquin Phoenix brought to DC’s previous villain-focused story, the Joker). A computer-generated version of Johnson, however, is sure to raise a smile.
There is some substance beneath the deafening crash and crash. Black Adam is set in a fictional Middle Eastern country under military occupation, where armed foreign mercenaries run over children at checkpoints. Hawkman spews platitudes about “global stability” at the same time as menacing power, and Shahi’s rebellious nature chastises the Justice Society for showing up 27 years too late after showing no interest in oppressive subjugation of her people.
A scathing indictment of haughty Western foreign policy in a superhero movie? Yes, you tell them! The same character then insists that Black Adam’s murderous violence is what makes him better. Oooooooooo…? Despite some muddled ideas, Black Adam’s themes of globalization and power show hints of a smart movie hidden within a very, very dumb movie.
The arrival of megastar Dwayne Johnson in the DC universe, plus the long wait for the film’s arrival, made Black Adam feel like an event. Now it’s here and it doesn’t feel so important. Still, it’s a big grand time at the movies, and what more could you want from The Rock?
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