In the Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq, circa 2500 B.C., a tyrannical king is desperate to mine a rare mineral known as “Eternium.” Slaves toil day and night in search of this magical resource, so that he may fashion a supernatural crown out of it that will grant him immeasurable power. Luckily, a boy is deemed worthy by a council of ancient wizards to be the defender of his people, and with one word (“Shazam!”), he is transformed into a mighty hero. He destroys the palace before this wretched regent becomes unstoppable and immortal, burying the crown and, unfortunately, himself along with it. He will slumber for some 5000 years before he’s awoken…and he will be angry….
In the corporate boardrooms of Burbank, circa the early 21st century, a group of studio executives are desperate to mine a comic book company’s endless cast of characters known as “intellectual property.” Scriptwriters and producers toil day and night in search of the right I.P. with which to create an extended cinematic universe, so that their overlords may be granted immeasurable financial power. Despite having a slew of iconic superheroes at their fingertips, however, this universe — let’s call it the DCEU — has been beset by many obstacles: too many lackluster entries, a lot of backroom finger-pointing, some questionable regime-change decisions and serious issues with the talent’s off-screen antics. Luckily, one of the last movie stars left standing has deemed them worthy of his talents, and with two words (“Black Adam!”), he has transformed a barren release schedule into something with a possible blockbuster on the horizon. It could change “the hierarchy of power” in this ongoing franchise…and the stockholders will be happy….
A character that predates the comic world’s Silver Age (his first appearance was in 1945) and was reintroduced as a nemesis to Shazam in the 1970s (right down to the de rigueur reverse-image suit), Black Adam has been namechecked as one of Dwayne Johnson’s personal DC favorites for years. The actor has been trying to make a movie centered around the supervillain/antihero for over a decade, and given both his box office bona fides and what appears to be a throw-it-against-the-wall-see-if-it-sticks mentality regarding this particular cinematic universe, the time was ripe for his pet project. Plus Warners gets a Dwayne Johnson movie out of the deal. And if the company can use the opportunity to introduce a potential new supergroup in the process as well? All the better.
Put it to you this way: Johnson is not the problem with Black Adam. The former Fast & Furious franchise all-star essentially played a superhero in those movies; given his pump-you-up physique, his ability to bust casts in a single flex and the series’ total disregard for real-world physics, all that was missing was the lightning bolt on his chest. He seems to fit into this world with the greatest of ease, looking serious and destroying things and milking what turns out to be a tragic backstory. Every so often, he gets to pal around with a kid and make a quip. Johnson is once again paired with his Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra, and the journeyman filmmaker treats this like he’s guiding his star through yet another Disney ride. Viewed as a light star vehicle with a lot of VFX — a soft Rock movie — it’s simply ho-hum. The issue is with everything else happening onscreen around him. Even by the DCEU’s dodgy standards, it’s a mess in a cape.
After a quick origin-story preamble, we’re dropped into modern-day Kahndaq, which has become an occupied territory chafing under the rule of transnational mercenaries known as “Intergang.” (Please note that the occupiers are not a nationally affiliated military force, but essentially bad agents acting out of their own rotten accord. There are no real-world equivalents. Nothing to see here.) A college professor named Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) thinks she knows where the no-good, very-bad Crown of Sabbac is. Along with her friend/comic relief Karim (Mo Amer, whose new show Mo is one of the best things to hit Netflix in ages) and her teenage skater son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), she manages to locate the relic in an underground cave. Except soldiers are waiting to ambush them, and her only hope is to summon the long-dead defender of their land via an ancient inscription.
Boom! Enter Johnson. Bang! The soldiers open fire. Splat! Bodies are flung like rag dolls, as well as being ripped apart, crushed, and incinerated by lightning. Once the melee moves outside, fighter planes, helicopters, tanks and heavy weaponry, not to mention the men who operate all of these things, are casually, brutally destroyed to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” They wanted a hero. Because this superhuman woke up on the wrong side of the tomb, they got a killing machine instead.
Such vulgar displays of power attract the attention of the Justice Society, who seem to have dropped the “of America” part of their old comic-book name — all the better to make this organization of international peacekeepers seem less like they’re meddling in other countries’ affairs on behalf of national agendas, my dear. (When they later hand out sweatshirts — no, really! — the full JSA logo is still present and accounted for.) It’s run by Carter Hall, a.k.a. Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), who has to quickly assemble a team from…whomever is on reserve, we guess? The call is answered by Kent Nelson, a.k.a. Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan); Al Rothstein, a.k.a Atom-Smasher (Noah Centineo); and Maxine Hunkel, a.k.a. Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). These four jump in a superjet and whizz over to Kahndaq, where Black Adam is currently wiping out bad guys by the dozens. They confront him to “peacefully negotiate the terms of his existence.” Spoiler: Chaos reigns.
Speaking of chaos: So what’s Hawkman’s deal? Is he a normal gent who constructed a mecha-hawk suit? Is he super-human, given that he picks up a car and throw it at one point? Some sort of combo of both? Oh, and Doctor Fate — we’re told he knows magic, can predict the future and has a helmet from outer space, but what are his powers, exactly? How’s the admittedly awesome-looking helmet play into it? Cyclone and Atom-Smasher get a bit more exposition: She’s described as “a tornado with 167 I.Q.”; “I get big,” he says, with something like a shrug. Right, got it. But what are these youngsters doing here? Did they just get grandfathered in, given their actual grandparents were in an older incarnation of the Society? How’s this group fit into the bigger DCEU’s ecosphere, anyway? And when the movie’s actual supervillain shows up, causing the inevitable differences to be put aside so as to fight a common enemy, is this person trying to…actually, never mind. All these questions are exhausting.
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Should you not have entire multicharacter histories at your beck and call, you may find yourself lost in the worldbuilding wilderness, wondering how so much of this fits together, who’s capable of doing what, why certain sacrifices matter, and why you should care about these peripheral, yet supposedly important characters that take up so much screen time. At least Hodge and Brosnan seem to know what movie they’re in, striking splash-page poses and saying the lines with the requisite end-of-the-universe solemnity. But there’s making a movie for the fans, and making a movie that only fans can decipher and appreciate. All of it could have been fixed, and easily. This is just lazy superhero storytelling.
You could maybe give Black Adam a pass for the lack of filling in key major-player blanks; for some, merely seeing these characters onscreen is enough to forgive virtually anything. When you add in an inability to figure out how to harmonize edgy, “bad-boy” genre elements with an almost corny notion of old-fashioned superhero tale-telling — tones are not blended so much as smashed together — along with action set pieces that resemble videogame cut scenes from 2010, a stock-images climax, a facile exploitation of a volatile political situation, and a sense that everything has been thrown together in a rush, it feels like you’ve been the victim of a multiplex scam. As for the end credits secret you’ve likely already heard about, it really only reveals that someone successfully negotiated a contract renewal. Not even the pleasure of watching Johnson enter into a blockbuster template he seemed destined to dominate can make up for how generic, flavorless and incoherent this is. His dream deserves better. So do you.