Those crazy fools, they finally did it. They put The Rock in a superhero movie. Cross the biggest action superstar with the most overblown effects-driven genre and you get Black Adam, a face-melting big-screen spectacular.
This is peak blockbuster -- for better and for worse.
A box office hit in theaters now, Black Adam is a ton of fun, if you like that sort of thing. Introducing a humorously homicidal antihero who puts an irreverent spin on the superhero formula, the film sees Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson playing a rare villain(ish) role and let loose to create carnage with a knowing smirk to camera.
From the title character's skull-crushing entrance and through a ludicrously violent riff on the super-speed sequences from the X-Men movies, director Jaume Collet-Serra delights in dealing out death and destruction (but y'know, in a fun way). Start to finish (including, Black Adam is a guilty pleasure that isn't even the slightest bit guilty.
Story-wise, Johnson plays Teth-Adam, ancient champion of a perennially oppressed (fictional) Middle Eastern nation called Kahndaq. An introductory voice-over fills us in on his past, his powers and, of course, the magical superweapon everyone will be chasing. (This time, it's the Crown of Something Or Other.)
Awakening in the present day, Adam is bemused by new-fangled progressive ideas like not melting people into skeletons for looking at him funny. A team of superheroes called The Justice Society is dispatched to take him down, plus an army of mercenaries with infinite ammo and a council of demons looking to unleash hell. It won't surprise you that things get very loud very fast and basically stay that way for two hours.
Johnson is the titular antihero, but this much-delayed flick sees a whole squadron of DC Comics heroes make the leap from comic book pages to big screen. Noah Cintineo, Quintessa Swindell, Aldis Hodge and former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan are along for the ride as the Justice Society of America, a bunch of DC comics superheroes you may know and love -- but probably not. They're hardly Superman or Spider-man league, let's put it that way.
With so many new and probably unfamiliar superheroes crammed into one film, you might wonder how the filmmakers manage to introduce them with meaningful, organic storytelling that connects emotionally with -- oh wait, nope, they don't even try. The superheroes just walk in, give a one-line description of their superpowers, then get on this random unexplained super-jet and off we go.
DC movies are often guilty of leaning on your comics knowledge to understand the characters, which is fine for a proportion of the target audience but isn't going to help with DC's quest to reach Marvel's massive mainstream audience. And no movie should come with homework.
Admittedly, we've reached the point in the superhero movie's dominance where we can probably cope with a new squad of improbably powered randos in every film. But it would be nice if they gave us something to root for. Aside from the odd blink-and-you-miss-it snippet of dialogue (Brosnan huffing something about watching aeroplanes flying off to World War I), no one is crafted with any history, personality, goals or flaws. Each character is delineated by what kind of quip they make when punching people. Hodge is Hawkman (wings, grumpy quip); Brosnan is Dr Fate (magic, twinkly quip); Swindell is Cyclone (wind, no quip); and Centineo is Atom Smasher (giant, awkward quip).
Brosnan brings much-needed gravitas even while cruising on half-speed -- a helmet hides his face for the action scenes -- while Centineo blends Mark Ruffalo-esque befuddlement with Tom Holland-style adorkability. Swindell is sadly under-used, and Hodge spends most of his time shouting. Among the supporting cast, Sarah Shahi's capable rebel drives much of the story. Playing her teen son, Bodhi Sabongui apparently skateboards in from some totally radical early '90s movie, but Mohammed Amer's bumbling sidekick is a scene-stealing highlight.
The large cast oddly pushes Johnson into the sidelines of his own movie for a surprising amount of the film. On top of that, a digital double of Johnson is glaringly subbed in for the action sequences. Why cast this former pro wrestler, one of the most physical dudes in showbiz, and then fill the fights with over-edited CGI?
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 a 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) lack 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? Yeah, you tell 'em! Then the same character insists that Black Adam's murderous violence is what makes him better. Ohhhkaayyy…? Despite some muddled ideas, Black Adam's themes around globalization and power shows 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, and what more do you want from The Rock?