‘Black Adam’ Carried by Dwayne Johnson Through Shaky Superhero Movie Ride

Dwayne Johnson is a damn good salesman, which you likely knew. Black Adam is a testament to his star power. This movie almost certainly doesn’t get made, nor does the character headline his own film, without Johnson making it happen.

And without Johnson, this movie probably wouldn’t be that compelling — except to comic book diehards thrilled to see secondary DC Comics characters like Hawkman and Doctor Fate brought to life on the big screen. But they’re a big part of the story and look great. So does Johnson and his real-life superhero physique in a role that seems to have been made for him.

Set in the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq, Black Adam immediately sets itself apart from other superhero stories taking place in New York, San Francisco, or fictional cities like Metropolis or Gotham City. (Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the best DC films are set in locations including Atlantis and the Amazon island of Themyscira.)

The movie also benefits from director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter, The Shallows) having plenty of experience with action movies that keeps what story there is moving with little time given to exposition and character moments. Black Adam pretty much goes from one action sequence to another with momentary chances to give the audience a breath. But even “quiet” scenes have action like Johnson busting through walls rather than using doors.

Collet-Serra occasionally has to concede to superhero tropes like origin stories (Black Adam’s is largely filled in through periodic flashbacks) and quick backgrounds, but that helps us care at least a little bit about these people. That’s especially important if we see heroes like weather-controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and giant man Atom-Smasher (Noah Centineo) in future films.

It’s easy to see why Black Adam appealed to Johnson. In recent years, the character has become a more prominent DC Comics villain because of his formidable powers that made him a worthy opponent for groups of superheroes like the Justice League. But with stories portraying his intentions as noble, exacted by a darker sense of righteousness, Black Adam became a popular “anti-hero” with creators and fans.

A twisted sense of justice and refusal to follow the virtuous hero path gives Johnson the opportunity to play a different sort of character. Black Adam is ruthless, fighting evil on its own terms with no interest in redemption or rehabilition. Superhero roles aren’t typically known as acting showcases, but this allows him to try a different persona.

Unfortunately, playing a dour, serious anti-hero doesn’t let Johnson play to his strengths. Virtually none of the charisma and charm we’re accustomed to seeing from him shows in his performance. There are flashes of his signature personality, thanks to interactions with teenager Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), the son of the professor and freedom fighter (Sarah Shahi) who frees the ancient warrior Teth-Adam from his tomb.

As a superhero fanboy with posters of Batman, Superman, the Flash, and Aquaman on his bedroom walls, Amon is also an unusual mentor of sorts, educating Teth-Adam on how he can help and inspire the oppressed people of Kahndaq, and what superheroes are supposed to do. They all need a catchphrase, right?

What’s strange is that Black Adam began in the comic books as an adversary for Shazam/ Captain Marvel, who isn’t even referenced in this movie. And non-comics fans who saw 2019’s Shazam! surely recognize the similarities between the hero of that movie and Johnson’s character. (Providing another reminder is a trailer for the upcoming sequel, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, running before Black Adam.)

Both of them are “mortal” humans granted superhuman abilities from wizards and gods, delivered via thunderbolt upon uttering the same magic word. Hero and villain are essentially mirror images of each other, a popular trope for superhero films.

Related: ‘Shazam!’ stands out by embracing what makes the superhero fun

That’s how Shazam! was originally set up, but Johnson exerted his power and convinced Warner Bros. to give Black Adam his own film, presumably setting up two franchises. (In my opinion, one of Shazam!‘s strengths was that the hero and villain were quite different from one another.) Even if it was to give himself his own movie, Johnson had the right impulse — especially since Black Adam is being used to expand and strengthen DC’s on-screen universe with several other superheroes that appear in the film.

Aldis Hodge (City on a Hill) probably should’ve been in a superhero movie already. (Johnson is probably the only guy that’s ever been bigger than him on a set.) As Hawkman, he’s the moral opposite of Teth-Adam, making it clear that heroes aren’t supposed to kill their enemies. That theme gets forced a bit too hard, constantly reminding us that we’re following an anti-hero. Pierce Brosnan brings a sage presence as Doctor Fate, a familiar face that can’t be hidden under the sorcerer’s signature helmet too often.

Unlike the most mediocre superhero movies, Black Adam doesn’t feel like it exists solely to set up other stories even if there are really too many characters here. Yes, we’ll likely these guys again somewhere. (Here’s rooting for more Hawkman!) And it’ll be fun to see Johnson build on Teth-Adam as he interacts with the rest of the DC movie universe. He’s made it clear that this won’t be a one-off. It’s not a bad start for more to come.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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