Black Adam is the ultimate test of movie stardom.
Dwayne Johnson is arguably the biggest movie star in the world, by muscle and box office gross, in an era where the role is nearing extinction. His unassailable presence is what the embattled DC Films and Warner Bros Discovery need right now. A decade of upheaval, infighting, fanbase toxicity, and, most importantly, terrible to serviceable films have left DC in dire straits. Who better to save them than Dwayne Johnson? For him, lending his powers to DC is a gamble. Whether Black Adam is successful or not, his sterling brand is tied to DC’s radioactive one. Can Johnson wade through DC’s mess and save them on his own?
Black Adam follows the resurrection of Thet Adam (Johnson), a formerly enslaved person imbued with the same magical powers as Shazam and cast into a millennia-long sleep. He’s awakened by Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), who seeks a mystical crown that she hopes will free her country Kahndaq from an international crime syndicate. Unfortunately, despite her son’s best (and irritating) efforts, Adam has no interest in being anyone’s hero. Adam’s immense powers draw the attention of the Justice Society, a team of superheroes. The Society – Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) – rush to Kahndaq to intercede, landing in a conflict that threatens the future of the planet.
For all of its hemming and hawing about Black Adam being an antihero, his film hews closely to the superhero molds of the last decade. Director Jaume Collet-Serra cribs from several forebearers in and out of the comic book film genre. The references are shamelessly plentiful: X-Men (2000), X-Men: First Class, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Thor, Black Panther, and even Shazam. Drawing inspiration from past successes isn’t inherently wrong if you’re evolving or excitingly blending them. Serra doesn’t, which leaves his film in a haphazard state that works in bits and pieces but never fully coalesces.
Black Adam is most consistent in its inconsistencies. The film bounces between straightforward and highly stylized direction. The CGI can be shockingly bad for a movie of this scale, but it can briefly inspire awe, like in visualizing Doctor Fate and Cyclone’s powers. The script is a minefield of generic heroic platitudes wrapped in themes of self-actualization and anti-imperialism (which the film is woefully unqualified to comment on). The film blessedly doesn’t waste time introducing its suite of heroes and villains but doesn’t fully develop them. The shoehorned-in humor doesn’t work in the first half, but some of the jokes land as some characters become sharper, especially Atom Smasher and Doctor Fate.
The film is best when it delivers on its antihero promise, particularly with its violence. Black Adam underwent significant cuts for its PG-13 rating, but at what cost? It feels visceral and alive in depicting its excessive murder. Sure, Adam could punch someone into oblivion, and he absolutely does that. But just as DCEU Superman was frustratingly limited in saving people, Adam is astonishingly creative in killing them. He electrocutes, tosses into the ozone layer, drops from the ozone layer, and even rips bodies in half. It’s a great way of dimensionalizing a character whose powers are admittedly vague and potentially one-note. For all the talk of alternate cuts, especially coming from DC, Black Adam: Uncut would be worth seeing.
The violence is compelling, but DC is banking heavily on Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam’s chief selling point. On paper, he is an inspired choice to play the demigod. His sheer size evokes an otherworldly power that could shatter bodies into carbonized dust. In practice, the role doesn’t quite fit him. Johnson commits to selling Adam’s brutal yet dispassionate disposition, delivering his most physical performance since he left the wrestling ring. He has never been more intimidating on screen. However, his intimidating presence is most valuable when subverted, either by his affinity for comedy or likability. There’s room for neither here, leaving him with little to do but look like a badass. That will be fine for some people, but for a star of Johnson’s caliber, the underwritten role feels beneath him.
Johnson does get some help with his supporting cast, which is much stronger than the film should’ve needed. As Hawkman, Aldis Hodge is a perfect foil and complement to Johnson. He projects a steady morality that he colors with exasperation with his teammates and a willingness to beat someone back into line. Pierce Brosnan looks pleasantly amused by the film, with a winking, wise disposition that provides some helpful heart. Noah Centineo is the greatest surprise. He picks up the charisma baton Johnson left behind and runs up and down with it. He takes the comic relief archetype and elevates it into something more charming, as Quintessa Swindell does with her brainiac one. (The two have lovely chemistry together.)
Black Adam is not a brand-sinking catastrophe nor a thrilling revival of DC’s up-and-down fortunes. The film is perfectly watchable and occasionally likable, rife with concrete-crushing action and shiny costumes. It works well enough if you ignore it being a critical DC film entry and a brand-building exercise for Johnson. However, given the maelstrom surrounding it, self-created and otherwise, the film can’t help feeling a bit beneath its gargantuan star.