In 2006, Dwayne Johnson was first approached about playing Black Adam in a live-action film. For comics-context, this was likely during the time that “52” was appearing in comic shops. This is before “Final Crisis,” before the New 52, before Man of Steel; hell, it was the year that Superman Returns hit theaters. This film has 16 years of build up, even if most of that was done either behind the scenes or at such a low temperature that calling it a simmer would be hyperbolic.
In some ways, the long build up and the hype doled out with precise regularity by Johnson on social media, are the worst thing for a movie like this. Black Adam is not a reinvention of the genre, it doesn’t make any new stars, it doesn’t feel like the start of anything. It also doesn’t feel like the end of a yeoman’s journey to get made, or the closing of a book that would allow a new one to open.
Black Adam feels like a cog in a corporate wheel. Sure, the cog is well made, does its job and, at times, those jobs are fun or impressive. But overall, this movie doesn’t live up to its own weight and, much like Wonder Woman 1984, feels like an attempt to right the course of the DCEU by simply leaning into the skid.
A big part of that comes from the film doing absolutely nothing to distinguish itself from the last 25 years of superhero movies. Black Adam is an unique character who could’ve had a movie built around him that felt new. Instead, the old format is rolled out again: overlong prologue, disorienting CGI, one-liners where they don’t always belong. In fact, a less than generous take could be that this is simply making a stew out of MCU elements. A dash of Dr. Strange with the way that Dr. Fate is presented, a hint of Iron Man 3‘s relationship with a kid, a sprinkling of de-buffing CGI ala Captain America: The First Avenger, all combines to make a very mid-dish.
But the biggest problem is in Johnson himself. “The Rock” is one of the most charismatic people on the planet, and this film refuses to use that at all. Now, I know you don’t want him doing WWE schtick, but his Black Adam feels at times like the performance is done by a stand-in, just making sure that the blocking is good before the star actually steps in. To neuter Johnson by having him smolder for 2 hours is a true crime.
Part of the reason that he has so little to do is that it was decided that this needed to be an origin story, and one separate from the franchise established by Shazam. The reason that Black Adam’s stoic narcissism is tolerable is because it is the counterweight to Captain Marvel’s “Holy Moley!”isms. If you had let Johnson play off Zachary Levi, his performance could’ve been infinitely more fun.
What’s especially galling about that decision is that the character of Amon is, essentially, playing a combination of Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman, but doesn’t use either one. Instead, this film is a half-hearted attempt at adapting the Black Adam arc from the fist half of “52,” but would never have the guts to actually follow through with the second half. But even more than that, the story doesn’t work as an origin tale. “52” works because of the build up of Black Adam stories over the years and, while this film doesn’t have that luxury, it didn’t have to be an origin story.
The solution to the lack of the Marvel family was to make this a Justice Society story as well, but that doesn’t really work, either. All four characters introduced as the JSA are fine to good, but mixing Black Adam with the Justice Society only works if both ideas are more developed than they were going in here. When Geoff Johns did that in comics, it made sense, as the JSA was the place where people learned to be heroes. Instead of training a kid, they were helping a powerful man realign his belief system. But this JSA is a tool of Amanda Waller, doesn’t really follow any logic (let’s send two rookies to stop perhaps the most powerful person on the planet!), and is instantly antagonistic.Continued below
There is no reason for a film has to be a slave to the comics, but when the comics provide a path to make a film that works, and they are ignored for no good reason, it can be frustrating, especially when the framework, characters, and setting are all borrowed whole-cloth. There is a shot at the end of the film that is only included to make comic stans do the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme toward a famous image. A slavish devotion to a cover, while ignoring the contents of the issue, is about the best way I can describe most of the DCEU.
The film does have some good sequences, excellent costume design (the Hawkman costume is especially sharp with its red accents), and fine performances from much of the cast. However, it cannot decide what it wants to be. Is Adam a ruthless killer? Yes. Does he want to learn a catchphrase? Also, yes.
The best parts of the film are the emotional undercurrents in both Adam’s and Adriana/Amon’s stories, but those are full of ‘twists’ that are so poorly disguised that they aren’t surprising at all. There is a betrayal in the fist act that would’ve been shocking if it didn’t happen, as it is telegraphed almost instantly. When the full scope of Adam’s story is told, you can’t help but slap your forehead, as of course that’s how it played out.
One last gripe: whoever is the in-house music supervisor for all DC projects needs to go. DC properties choose the absolutely least interesting catalog music for their films and TV shows. The first modern day sequence is set to “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by the Smashing Pumpkins, and made me laugh out loud when it started. Later on, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” was played because it a) mentions ‘black’ and b) has a Middle Eastern sound. Come on, folks.
The shame of all of this is that, like with a lot of the DCEU, if you squint hard enough, you can see what the plan was, and that plan wasn’t terrible. Johnson could’ve been used properly. The JSA could’ve been introduced in a way that made a shred of sense. You could use the other character who says “Shazam” who already had a hit movie. The mid-credits sequence (there is no post-credits scene) hints at a bigger future for the character, and I think that could be very fun and good. Black Adam, and even Black Adam played by Dwayne Johnson, could be a great piece of the DCEU. But this film doesn’t realize that vision and, with the current state of Warner Bros, seems like no one else may get the opportunity to realize it either.