The best thing about Black Adam is also the worst thing about it. DC’s latest mega superhero film has a surprisingly compact story that takes place over just a few short days. Everything unfolds almost like it’s in real time, keeping the action and story so propulsive that, at moments, you can barely catch your breath. However, the fast pace doesn’t leave much room for director Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise) to explore the many, many, themes, subplots, and characters packed into the film. Black Adam is filled with intended emotional threads but most of it gets lost in the explosions. Everything is rushed, half-explained, glossed over, and as a result, a movie that’s generally fun to watch ends up feeling super messy.
Here’s an example. Obviously Dwayne Johnson, one of the biggest movie stars in the entire world, plays the title character, a former slave who is given special powers 5,000 years ago before being entombed. However, no one in the film ever actually calls him “Black Adam.” When he wakes up in modern times, everyone refers to him as “Teth Adam,” his given name from the comics which is used to indicate this superhuman is from another era. One with a rich backstory and culture that informs the world he finds himself in now. The problem is every character in the film says the word “Teth” differently so, unless you go into the film knowing your comic book history, you’re constantly trying to figure out what exactly the main character is called. At times it sounds like “Death Adam” or “Tenth Adam.” I even heard a “Fifth Adam.” It’s an unfortunately sloppy execution of a specific, meaningful choice and, because of it, the importance of that choice can get completely lost. Which is oh so Black Adam.
That’s one—admittedly nit-picky—example of how Black Adam continually swings and misses, but it’s a pattern throughout. After a prologue that explains the history of the fictional city of Kahndaq, one that continues to unfold and develop over the course of the film, we meet Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi). She’s a professor fighting for freedom in modern Kahndaq along with her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), and a few friends, all of whom believe she’s found the location of an ancient evil crown. And she has. But not only does Adrianna find the crown, she also uncovers a mythical being who, at one time, was the champion of Kahndaq: Teth Adam.
Once Adam is unleashed, he immediately goes on a murder spree that, more or less, lasts for the entire rest of the film. No joke. The killing and action take only occasional, minor breaks from about 10 minutes into the film through the ending. This carnage gets the attention of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising her Suicide Squad roles) who asks the Justice Society, a superhero team lead by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) to capture Adam. And so Hawkman, along with Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and two brand new additions to the team, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), travel to Kahndaq to confront Adam, only to eventually get swept up in the larger story about the crown and the evil men trying to find it.
As I said above, the propulsive nature of the story is the film’s best attribute. Once the Justice Society arrives to fight Adam, he’s already been fighting and continues to do so in ways that exploit and explore each hero’s superpowers. Some of the powers, like Dr. Fate’s ability to exist in multiple places, or Atom Smasher’s ability to grow extremely large, become important to the overall plot. Cyclone’s control of wind and Hawkman’s... something, less so. Each one is entertaining and unique to watch though, even if the film treats them more like toys to play with rather than fully developed, important characters.
In the rare instances that the flying, punching, and explosions stop, Black Adam touches upon several related thematic elements. First, there’s the origin of Teth Adam: how his son and his son’s death played a role in his creation, and how the enemy he was fighting 5,000 years ago is the same type of enemy the people of Kahndaq are still fighting now. Another is a throughline about the Kahndaq people, how they’ve been oppressed and are fighting for their freedom, which we see both in flashbacks and occasional scenes of the city praising their violent champion. And that’s another thread Black Adam tries to pull at. Adam is an unapologetic killer. He does so for the right reasons but he feels no guilt or remorse about it. It’s an ethos that endears him to his people but puts him at odds with Hawkman and the Justice Society.
All of these things get thrown into the film at various times but never really have any resonance. Just when the story seems ready to explore that idea about violence, or maybe the one about oppression, things shift to another. Then there are scenes featuring wildly out-of-place songs by the Rolling Stones or Kanye West. These musical choices, especially in juxtaposition with Lorne Balfe’s noteworthy, pulse-pounding score, completely change the tone of the film and take you out of a moment of potential poignancy. However, it’s also impossible to deny that watching Adam fly around and demolish a city set to cool rock music is really fun to watch. So the film constantly feels torn between exciting action set pieces and actually being about something of substance.
The film’s cornucopia of tones and themes comes across in the cast too. As Adam, Dwayne Johnson plays his most sinister, serious character yet. It’s a choice crucial to understand the heart of this anti-hero but, at the same time, you can’t help but miss Johnson’s undeniable charisma. It comes out in bits and pieces but his solid performance feels a bit at odds with his larger-than-life personality. You 100% understand why he was cast—he’s awesome and the movie doesn’t get made without him—but you also wonder if perhaps an actor less famous might have been a tad more believable, at the expense of the real-life muscles, of course.
A balance is better struck with the members of the Justice Society. Hodge is wildly captivating and charismatic, giving even Johnson on his best day a run for his money. Brosnan goes for a more reserved stoic performance than we’re used to from him, but throws in that James Bond charm when it’s necessary. Then there’s Swindell and Centineo, who each steal the film completely when they’re on screen—which makes the fact that their characters feel tacked on and painfully underdeveloped hurt even more.
The non-superhero characters are all solid too, with one particular stand out being Bodhi Sabongui as Adrianna’s son Amon. Amon is arguably the film’s second lead. He’s the one who tells Teth Adam he needs a new name, explains superhero catchphrases, and constantly interjects much-needed humor and energy into his scenes. That he also becomes a focal point of the plot, and his bedroom the setting for the film’s most meta action scene, only adds to his utility. Even when Black Adam isn’t working, it works better with Sabongui.
Combining so many tones, plots, and characters, Black Adam feels like a movie made for audiences who don’t want any of that. It’s a movie that prioritizes Johnson on screen, kicking crazy amounts of ass, with big loud special effects and good music. In those aims, Black Adam delivers. But the fact it’s not about anything, or more specifically it’s not convincingly about anything, keeps it from standing out among a sea of other superhero films. Even the noteworthy end credit scene comes off like a final Hail Mary attempt at giving audiences something to talk about when they walk out of the theater. But without that, and even with it, Black Adam is a watchable addition to the DC universe, but not the game changer it was craving.
Black Adam opens October 21.
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