A Black Adam movie without Dwayne Johnson just doesn’t make sense. He’s a powerful character to be sure, but in terms of bankability he’s the relatively unknown villain of Shazam, who is only just regaining his cultural cred thanks to his 2019 film. With the involvement of a mega-star like Johnson, though, you have something–to some degree, the movie sells itself just through his involvement. Even so, it has a lot to live up to–Superman, Shazam, Johnson’s own reputation, and the expectations that come with a movie that’s been in the works for fifteen years. Light spoilers follow for Black Adam.
Before we can even really talk about the movie itself, though, we have to address the Rock of it all. Dwayne Johnson is not just a huge star, he’s a huge personality that can singlehandedly carry a character like this that is otherwise unknown to wide audiences (even if we know and love the character going way back). But he tends to play characters that aren’t that far from himself. Jumanji is “what if the Rock was a little silly” and Fast & Furious is “what if the Rock was still the Rock.”
My concern going into Black Adam was that he’d be stuck in this mode–that we’d be watching The Rock wearing the Black Adam costume, rather than him actually portraying the character.
Compared to a lot of his other films, Johnson actually finds some success here. There are, of course, lots of silly moments that are emblematic of his style; the guy whacking him with a baton that bends around his head stands out in particular, but another moment has him casually walking through a wall, and then pushing a couch forward as if it was featherlight. In a movie that feels so straight and self-serious, these moments come off as distractions.
On the other hand, though, he’s successful at making Black Adam feel like a fish out of water, a guy who is suddenly 5,000 years in the future and yet so powerful that the time jump hardly matters to him, whose rage has suddenly been on pause for that whole time. Johnson does a better job with it than I could’ve expected, but it’s hard not to feel like the script and plot are holding him back a fair amount.
The Justice Society of America
The Justice Society has been all over the place the last few years. Legends of Tomorrow did one version of them, and now Stargirl is doing another. Now it’s time for their big-screen debut… in the Rock’s movie. There are some things to laud here, but mostly the JSA’s live-action film debut falls a little flat.
On the story side, they start with a great idea that I would love to have seen developed more. After Adam reappears in the early minutes of the film, Amanda Waller has Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) zipping from Hawkman’s lavish estate in his indestructible super jet. For years before this, the DC terrorist organization known as Intergang has been occupying Kahndaq at international military levels, without any intervention from either the United States or the international community, or, apparently, superheroes of any kind.
The story tries to gesture at asking questions about the way Western powers fight over the resources of the Middle East, but struggles with balancing the idea with the fact that this is a Superhero Film. We experience the story through the eyes of archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) and her son Amon Tomaz (Bodhi Sabongui).
The former knows the secrets of ancient Kahndaq and how they relate to Eternium, the glowing blue rock that is (stop me if you’ve heard this one) linked to Black Adam’s origin and is one of the very few things that can harm him. The latter takes on the role of Shazam’s Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Glazer), except way cooler. His room is covered from floor to ceiling in superhero posters, figures, and statues, and he has the heart of a hero inside his mortal frame.
While Amon chases Black Adam around the city with impressive tenacity, Adrianna lectures the JSA, asking them where they were when Intergang showed up. In the team’s first encounter with Black Adam, they ran in head-first and wreaked a lot of havoc with no victory to show for it, fighting against someone that appeared to the people of the country to be their newly-risen legendary hero.
There are great ideas there–the movie could’ve made powerful statements about the autonomy of Middle Eastern nations, the complexity of conflicts in the region, and the misplaced moral authority of Western nations going in overconfidently to break things up (so that they can get in on those precious national resources).
Instead, after a couple of disastrous battles, both Adam and the JSA are ready to talk, and we’re offered up a twist that changes the way we look at the character but that the movie did nothing to foreshadow or build scaffolding for. It’s just a thing that happened, and no sense–thematically or in the plot–about why it should be the case. And then, suddenly, after a false ending, everyone is working together to fight a demon that has all the depth of a third-act superhero movie villain–think the Cesletials in Marvel’s The Eternals–where their main function is to give the arguing heroes something to punch together and little more. In other words, all of their differences are set aside because the Good Guy and the Less Good Guy have to work together to beat the Worst Guy, and all those questions just get a shrug.
Looking at the JSA itself, we find somewhat of a mixed bag. Pierce Brosnan plays Dr. Fate/Kent Nelson and it seems clear that he’s having a blast with the role. The nature of the character means that Brosnan doesn’t have to do any superheroing himself–the VFX artists took care of that for him. He just has to wear lots of obscenely posh outfits and carry around a helmet. Dr. Fate is fun on both sides. Brosnan delivers on the tortured nature of Fate’s powers–he’s deeply wise but has had to watch his friends die a thousand times. Meanwhile, the superhero side of Fate looks great and the artists got to be a little weird with the character’s powers, and he’s just fun to watch across the board.
As Carter Hall/Hawkman, Aldis Hodge plays a little closer to type. He’s this movie’s Batman-type character. He is very serious, brooding, and wildly wealthy. He does pretty much what you’d expect. Noah Centineo is most of the movie’s comic relief, with Atom Smasher acting as a bumbling newbie, while Quintessa Swindell’s Cyclone is endlessly competent despite their age and experience. Neither character gets to do much at all, unfortunately, which is about what we expected–a movie with five new superhero characters can’t introduce and do justice to all of them.
The action, meanwhile, is somewhat better than the movie around it. The first sequence has Black Adam facing off against countless members of Intergang, first in his tomb and then in the desert outside. This whole sequence does a great job of portraying the battle from Adam’s point of view specifically. It feels like it was inspired by the slow-motion Flash sequences from Justice League; we watch lightning arc between the soldiers while Adam adjusts the arc of a helicopter blade and tears a truck in half. It can sometimes be tough to show the world from the point of view of a character like Superman, and this part works really well.
In general, though, while the action is really good, there’s a lot of slow motion, bordering on too much. While that first sequence works out well, some others struggle to stay engaging.
Black Adam isn’t a bad movie by any stretch. The Rock’s association with this character was first announced in November 2007, though, which is just a split hair short of fifteen years. That the movie came out at all, with its original star intact and enthusiastic for the role, tells us how much Johnson cared about bringing the character to life. But while he’s an engaging screen presence, the movie around him fails to live up to that. While some parts work, others, like the movie’s attempt at humor, mostly fall flat.
Brosnan aside, the JSA is just okay. The movie only manages to go skin deep on the themes it wants to portray, leaving information about important stretches of time that would help us better understand Adam and Khandaq. And then there’s that final act shift that just doesn’t add anything to the proceedings. It’s not a bad movie, but it is, unfortunately, pretty forgettable for a movie that has been in the works for so long, with one person shepherding it along the whole way. Johnson promised us that the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe would change, but Black Adam fails to deliver on that promise, instead offering just another enjoyable but mostly forgettable superhero movie.