Long gestating in WB/DC’s big screen coffers since 2014, if not longer, there seemed to be a mountain of promise in crafting a solo origin film for an antihero with a respectable fan base. Only to find, from the perception of a non-comic reader, that his personality does not effectively translate to an on-screen victory. Back then, DC’s development slate posed a few plausible ideas, destined to go north or south. Fast forward to 2022, and the bobbles are now impossible to ignore. I’d count Black Adam well among them, perhaps the most misguided among its far superior franchise brethren. Keeping Dwayne Johnson on retainer to occupy the lead role is perhaps what hurts its chances above everything else to look outside its middling fate. Especially when his portrayal muddles about like he’s still living in the mid-2000s.
I could easily say the same for its jumbled, overcomplicated grip with plot, a chartered course likely truthful to the comics’ crusades, but no less a rigmarole of ideas made to look like it were fashioned by way of AI, versus the knack of capable screenwriters. Although Adam Sztykiel (Rampage), and the duo of Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani (The Mauritanian) are credited, there’s no clear distinguishing of human writers who know how to balance backstory and relevancy. Here, it’s not to be found as most of the lore is overstuffed in the first ten minutes, not minding immediate burnout and confusion.
A rather harmful detriment to what ought to be a Raiders-like landscape, the kingdom of Kahndaq, bridging the gap between ancient and modern times. And it’s a lengthy frame of time, five thousand years. Exactly how long one-time slave Teth-Adam (Johnson) had been trapped in a crude form of hypersleep, after his son manifested the mighty power of Shazam to aid in rebellion against their nefarious king Anh-Kot.
Suddenly, we move to present day, Adam is awaken by Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), professor and resistance fighter looking to escape military tyranny with son Amon (newcomer Bodhi Sabongui) in tow. But not before making away with a powerful crown once owned by Anh-Kot, the police reaction and Adrianna’s fear triggering Adam’s fish-out-of-water return into civilization. This development gives Amon a new friend, and attracts unwarranted attention from hell-bent opposition leader Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari). And in tandem, luring the upstart Justice Society to investigate – no-nonsense Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), old soul Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), and newcomers Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) & Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).
With all these faces in play, either working with the all-powerful being, or against him as events dictate, Adam proceeds to wreak havoc. Near mindlessly, if not also with a brief brush of restraint. The character itself does not waste his powers – he can fly, slow time, is impervious to bullets, and knows how to bust through walls without flinching. The latter proves how this role is nowhere near a good look for Johnson, given his welcome evolution as an actor over time. Having been onboard to give Adam his big screen dues since at least 2007, there’s clearly a side of his brain lingering on the vapidness of Scorpion King, and overlooking the cheerful self-awareness of, say, Jumanji. It does not support his specific clout as it possibly would’ve earlier in the day.
The Rock’s fighting shows fluidity in spots; his line delivery, another story. And the worst kind. It’s all over the place, like a Microsoft speech generator sans computer. Stiff, robotic, and all around corny. Faded flashbacks aside, anything Adam says comes off non-humanlike, and sorely lacking in emotion or consequence. His supporting cast can only look to overcompensate for that staid underperformance. Even still, it’s far from enough. Even if one were familiar with this section of the comics, the impressions left still appear unpalatable. Brosnan perhaps makes the most fun out of the situation, despite sounding a trifle tired. Centineo is often quick to land a joke in sync with his body blows. The likes of Hodge, Shari and Kenzawi can only settle for merely blending in with the junky CG atmosphere and Lorne Balfe’s (Top Gun: Maverick) triumphant score. They exist to move the plot forward, and that’s about it, uncertain of any future legacy.
Perhaps that’s the thing least weighing heavily on director Jaume Collet-Serra’s mind. The deep genre experienced skipper only really found himself attached to the project, making quick friends with Johnson on the far superior (if not just as lazy) Jungle Cruise. One could reckon he’s a little out of his depth making a “do-gooder or antihero” morality play out of a machismo comic book stock plot. To the point where even his efforts take a backseat to the supposed AI generation in play. Much of his oversight looks to fall on deaf ears, only nudging specific guidance as specific plot minutiae is plucked presumably from the inked page, and other legitimate comic book films.
Sleek costumes (including one noticeable copycat), dusty sub-future locales, a misunderstood kid character desperate to understand his place in the world, and ill-placed rock/pop songs? None of these are new ground, and how they are applied to this template only cheapens their remaining cache. There may be a place for everything in Sztykiel’s treatment, over two hours’ worth for ideas to fester, and for each one to roam out of place as well. Collet-Serra only interjects in his chair long enough to avoid a complete shatter of even the simplest comprehension. Call it automatic stick shift of a not so profound variety, except for when he can afford a singular style flourish. We only have to wait maybe 20 minutes for that to happen, in the form of a slow motion ammo fight paired with The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black. A restrained, Tarantino-esque nod from an auteur still better suited for creature features and middle-of-the-road Liam Neeson b-vehicles.
And with all its attempts to play the quirky card, to show the need for flighty brawn and logical brain in a cautious duality, the end result is, in no small terms, disastrous and unremarkable. A wild adventure with entertainment value limited to first viewing. The sort of film oblivious to its own shortfalls, desiring a more carefully organized story, and with its star powering through on hesitant shoulders. Johnson does not put in his full 100% on Black Adam. That alone is troubling, though the idea of him putting so much inaction on a self-proclaimed passion project, let alone one milling about without a brain, or nerves, or any manner of human authorship, that only furthers the frustration. Combining a top acting force (yes, he can still act, proficiently) with a top genre or brand in filmmaking should propose a positive result. Opposites can still push back, however. For The Rock, Black Adam pushes him a little far away than where he’s capable of navigating. If that can’t leave an actor humbled enough to choose their inroads wisely, I don’t expect anything will. (D+; 2/5 Horns Up!)
Black Adam opens in theaters October 21 (previews begin 3PM October 20), with a note to remain seated for a mid-credits scene whose mileage may vary; rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language; 124 minutes.