The Black Adam movie is a top blockbuster movie for better and for worse. Warner Bros. Pictures has released Black Adam in theaters on Friday, October 21. So, if you’re intersted in this type of movie, you’ll have a blast with Black Adam since it features a hilariously violent anti-hero who puts a attractive sarcastic take on the traditional superhero story. Playing a rare villain(ish) role, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is let loose to unleash carnage with a knowing smirk to camera.
This movie is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
The film takes great pleasure in delivering death and destruction (although in an entertaining fashion), as evidenced by Black Adam’s skull-crushing introduction and a ludicrously violent spin on the super-speed sequences from the X-Men films. From the opening scene to the final shot of the titles, Black Adam is unrepentant wicked pleasure.
You can clearly see how much trust and hope Warner Bros. has put into the notion that a darker, more ruthless antiheroic figure would be just what its struggling cinematic universe of cape pictures needs to emerge from what appears to be a death spiral in Black Adam. It’s more difficult to see, though, how anyone at Warner Bros. could have seen the finished Black Adam and failed to immediately identify it as another illustration of how chaotic the DCEU has become.
Black Adam, from director Jaume Collet-Serra, tells the story of Teth-Adam (Johnson), an ancient, magically empowered demigod who first walked the Earth as a mortal man thousands of years ago in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq. Though the bulk of Black Adam is set in present-day Kahndaq and follows Teth-Adam as he confusedly tries to understand what became of his nation after he vanished one day in the past, the movie also repeatedly flashes back to his life as an ordinary man in order to make you understand what it is that drives him to be the way he is.
Before Teth-Adam became a hulking, invulnerable thunderstorm shaped like a professional wrestler, he was one of the countless enslaved Kahndaqi forced by their tyrannical king to mine their land for its Eternium, a glowing rare metal whose properties are never really spelled out. Brutal as life under their king was, no one ever dared to rise up against their oppressors for fear of death. But Black Adam’s earliest scenes detail how that all changed one-day thanks to Teth-Adam’s son Hurut (Jalon Christian) — a young boy whose act of defiance sparked a revolution and subsequently led to his death.
Though Black Adam’s backstory has always been an important part of understanding him as a character, the movie’s way of gradually teasing out what happened to his family while also playing coy about some rather obvious details is one of the first signs that Black Adam’s script isn’t firing on all cylinders. It’s not hard to figure out the big secret Black Adam’s hiding in the present day after professor Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) wakes him from a centuries-long sleep by saying the word “Shazam.” And to be fair, Black Adam doesn’t try all that hard to keep the secret hidden or make it intrigue because, once Teth-Adam’s up and operating in modern Kahndaq, the movie shifts gears dramatically to focus on giving its protagonist the flashiest, most murder-filled debut the DCEU’s had yet.
Away from the CGI punch-ups, Johnson’s acting skills aren’t exactly stretched. He’s mostly required to loom and deliver deadpan one-liners. Teth-Adam spends a lot of time staring at a statue, which hints at some vulnerability as the character grapples with the weight of his own myth. But Black Adam is pretty safe for a bad guy — sure, he’s not afraid to toss a henchman into a mountain (played for a laugh), but Johnson (and his digital double) lacks the seething rage and unpredictable menace that would make Black Adam truly scary (compared to, say, the unsettling simmering volatility Joaquin Phoenix brought to DC’s previous villain-focused story Joker). One computer-generated version of Johnson is sure to raise a smile, however.
There is some substance under the deafening banging and crashing. Black Adam is set in a fictional Middle Eastern country under military occupation, where armed foreign mercenaries shove kids around at checkpoints. Hawkman spouts platitudes about “global stability” in the same breath as threatening force, and Shahi’s rebel character chastises the Justice Society for showing up 27 years too late after showing no interest in the repressive subjugation of her people.
A scathing indictment of high-handed western foreign policy in a superhero movie? Then the same character insists that Black Adam’s murderous violence is what makes him better. Despite some muddled ideas, Black Adam’s themes around globalization and power show hints of a smart movie hidden inside a very, very dumb movie.
The arrival of megastar Dwayne Johnson in the DC universe, plus the long wait for the film’s arrival, built Black Adam into feeling like an event. Now it’s here, and it doesn’t feel that momentous. Still, it’s a big spectacular time at the movies.
The JSA’s arrival in Kahndaq, and the way Black Adam pits them against Teth-Adam, has an unfortunate way of highlighting how hesitant the movie is to say what it really wants to say about our pop cultural obsession with mythic superhumans sworn to protect us. It would make all the sense in the world for Teth-Adam to have nothing but fury and thunderbolts for foreign vigilantes coming into his home. But Black Adam stops short of being that logical, both because Warner Bros. knows how irredeemable it might make the character seem in people’s eyes and because the studio has some rather obvious plans for him in the future.
For those who’ve been waiting for a big, bombastic celebration of how powerful Black Adam is that also strips away most of the narrative context that makes him work in DC’s comic, neither Black Adam nor its mid-credits scene will disappoint. But for anyone hoping that Black Adam might actually herald a new era of quality and substantive superhero features from Warner Bros., there’s always the chance that the next movie he pops up in might be a good one.