Dwayne Johnson is a conflicted superhero in the latest adventure from the DC Extended Universe
Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra. US. 2022. 124mins
Dwayne Johnson’s larger-than-life physique makes him an ideal actor to play a superhero and Black Adam caters to his strengths, resulting in a reasonably entertaining origin story of a Middle Eastern slave who is transformed into a god. The latest instalment in the DC Extended Universe too often succumbs to the conventions of its genre — it’s a film suffused with hokey punchlines and predictably gaudy action set pieces — but some compelling performances and director Jaume Collet-Serra’s ebullient B-movie flourishes prove to be sufficient compensation.
Johnson has mostly relied on his unassuming charm in recent films, but Black Adam finds him summoning a more brooding demeanour
Opening in the UK and US on October 21, Black Adam features a protagonist who insists he’s no good guy; an indication of this comic-book picture’s slightly darker tone — albeit not so dark as to keep general audiences away. But although Johnson is probably a bigger draw than the character he’s playing, audiences starved for superhero fare should line up in droves.
After a prologue set in 2600 BC, the film flash-forwards to modern-day Kahndaq; a fictional Egypt-like country ruled by an evil organisation known as Intergang. Hoping to find an ancient, magic crown that can help liberate her people, widowed professor Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her plucky son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) end up freeing Teth-Adam (Johnson), a lowly slave who fought for the Kahndaqi people against their oppressors centuries ago, from his tomb. Now reborn with Superman-like powers, Adam is viewed as a threat to Earth’s safety by the Justice Society, led by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan).
Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) previously worked with Johnson on Jungle Cruise and, like that Disney film, Black Adam is essentially a bigger-budget version of the knowingly over-the-top thrillers he previously made. But his exuberance is warranted for a character so powerful that —in one of the picture’s more macabre running jokes — any mere mortal trying to stop him quickly discovers all they’ve done is ensure their own doom. Without a smirk or clever quip, the dour Adam sends humans hurtling through the air or zaps them with lightning; innocent bystanders’ deaths don’t bother this antihero, as he doesn’t believe he needs to adhere to any moral code.
Black Adam is hardly the first film about a superhero who resists his destiny. But this adaptation of the DC character, which is part of the same cinematic ecosystem as 2019’s far more self-deprecating Shazam!, does try to interrogate the trope, asking what constitutes heroism. For instance, if the Justice Society is so concerned about saving the day, why didn’t they intervene in imperilled Kahndaq long before Adam arrived? To be sure, these thematic concerns are dealt with superficially and yet they provide just enough resonance to amplify the film’s emotional and dramatic stakes.
Disappointingly, the screenplay makes room for tiresome genre cliches. Beyond the obligatory end-credits teaser, Collet-Serra delivers strained comic relief — Noah Centineo plays the dorky Justice Society newcomer Atom Smasher — and the prerequisite CGI-laden fight scenes. Even the Justice Society members’ superpowers feel familiar, although Brosnan is quite lovely as the thoughtful sorcerer Doctor Fate, who is both blessed and cursed to be able to see the future. Brosnan isn’t the only actor who brings some grace to the proceedings. Shahi is stirring as an activist determined to make sure her son grows up in a better Kahndaq than the one she has known. And Hodge exudes grizzled nobility, playing a traditional comic-book hero whose self-righteousness will be challenged by his interactions with this mighty being.
As for Adam, he only wants to help his fellow Kahndaqis, but he’ll be forced to team up with the distrustful Hawkman after one of Adrianna’s supposed friends turns out to be part of Intergang, seeking the all-powerful crown for himself. Johnson has mostly relied on his unassuming charm in recent films, counterbalancing his impressive build with a silly streak, but Black Adam finds him summoning a more brooding demeanour, easily conveying the awe-inspiring grandeur of a vengeful god. To that end, Collet-Serra incorporates several arresting shots of Adam simply hovering through the sky, the character beginning to grasp the frightening potential of his incredible powers.
It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that maybe, just maybe, this antihero will end up surprising everyone by becoming a good guy. But while that may be expected, Johnson’s gentle humanity makes the transformation appealing without sacrificing Adam’s bitter edge — a bitterness whose roots we’ll eventually learn more about. Black Adam hardly reinvents superhero cinema, but at least its star gives it a little muscle.
Production companies: Seven Bucks Productions, Flynn Picture Co.
Worldwide distribution: Warner Bros.
Producers: Beau Flynn, Hiram Garcia, Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia
Screenplay: Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Production design: Tom Meyer
Editing: Mike Sale, John Lee
Music: Lorne Balfe
Main cast: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Mohammed Amer, James Cusati-Moyer, Pierce Brosnan