It’s safe to say that the whole superhero sub-genre that was once filled with awe and excitement has become bloated, generic, and safe. Every other property looks washed-out, devoid of any genuine passion, and filled to the brim with a certain kind of humor that really needs a laugh track to let the viewer know that the poorly written characters are cracking a joke. And even though the bar for such movies and shows is pretty much underground—apart from a handful of critics—you won’t see a lot of people complaining about it and demanding the bare minimum. Instead, you’ll see them pitting critics against fans and defending these billion-dollar companies as if they were indie productions on the brink of bankruptcy. Amidst all this nonsense, much like the last DC project, “The Batman,” “Black Adam” feels like a tangible film and not something that has been made in a parking lot and later polished by overworked VFX artists.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, “Black Adam” opens with a long expository sequence about the ruler of Kahndaq, King Ahk-Ton (Marwan Kenzari). He wanted to forge a crown made of a mineral called “Eternium” and summon the power of the devils. One day, a kid revolted against him and almost motivated the people of the country to do the same. But he was arrested by the king’s guards and sent for execution. Just when he was about to be killed, he was gifted with the power of Shazam, which he used to destroy King Ahk-Ton. It has been 5000 years since that day, and in the present, archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shah), along with her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and colleagues Rami (Patrick Sabongui) and Ishmael (Kenzari), is trying to locate the tomb in which the Crown of Sabbac is hidden. That’s where they awaken the champion preserved in that tomb, Teth-Adam/Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson). And as Adam begins to wreak havoc, the Justice Society – which is made up of Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) – drops in to say “hello.”
The most surprising thing about “Black Adam” is that it is openly political in nature. It’s customary to expect superhero shows to address real-life issues on the level that “The Boys” or “Watchmen” have done. But when it comes to movies, they either appear surface-level or extremely problematic. Collet-Serra, along with his team of writers, establishes the two kinds of tyranny Kahndaq has faced. One is that of King Ahk-Ton, who turned his own people into slaves; the second is that of the Intergang, a neo-Imperialist American organization that is oppressing the people of that country while robbing it of its resources. And, like many superhero movies, they pose the Justice Society as the token white savior(s) of this narrative. However, Adam and the people of Kahndaq eventually prove that they don’t need heroes who aren’t even from their continent. They are much more willing to champion one of their own, even if said champion’s history is a little dicey because he’s willing to change for good.
Coming to the overall characterization of Black Adam. In “Shazam!,” he was painted as a villain. The Justice Society, particularly Hawkman, treats him as a villain. And, to be fair, Adam’s brutality does make him look like a villain. But the false laurels on his shoulders, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) gushing over his awesomeness (which serves as a great commentary on the commodification of superheroes, in general), and the need to liberate the people of Kahndaq, even though the place is radically different from the Kahndaq from Adam’s time, force him to change his ways. That is some pretty layered stuff, thereby making Black Adam a very interesting character. That said, it gets buried under the heaping amounts of exposition regarding the possession of the Crown of Sabbac, periodic reminders about how the plot is going to progress, and the repetitive exchanges between Hawkman and Black Adam. Yes, all of it is necessary. However, since it’s presented in the same way every time, sometimes with the same set of words, the viewing experience becomes tiring.
As mentioned in the title, “Black Adam” compensates for the copious amounts of expository dialogue with copious amounts of action and spectacle. Dwayne Johnson’s entry as the titular character is fantastic. There’s visual comedy. It is quite barbaric. And, most importantly, it looks great. The yellow tint is a bit much. But since it’s consistent throughout the film and makes the production design, costume design, set design, and the displays of power (especially in slow motion) pop on the screen, I didn’t mind it at all. Overall, the CGI-heavy fight sequences fare better than the hand-to-hand, non-CGI battles. I am assuming that’s the case because the bigger set pieces were heavily pre-visualized, pre-planned, and weren’t tinkered with too much. As for the rest, I think there are two issues. The actors relied way too much on their stunt doubles, and the fight choreography and action direction didn’t take that into consideration, thereby leading to the choppy editing. The frenetic cuts also plague some of the conversational scenes, probably to give them a sense of urgency. But that doesn’t work and just makes those scenes jarring. Lorne Balfe’s score is addictive, pulpy, and gives Adam a sense of oomph!
You know, I used to be a huge fan of Dwayne Johnson’s work. I have watched and re-watched “The Scorpion King,” “The Rundown,” “Walking Tall,” “Gridiron Gang,” “Tooth Fairy,” “Fast Five,” “Snitch,” and “Pain & Gain.” Then, something happened post “San Andreas,” and, in an attempt to charm everyone, he stopped taking risks. A 2019 GQ article on how the actor doesn’t want to lose a fight on-screen essentially proved the theory that Johnson won’t accept anything that’ll portray him in a negative light. So, when he took on “Black Adam,” it seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to look powerful and stray away from the path of blandness he had been on. And I’ll say it’s a success for the most part. Johnson plays Adam like the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from “Judgment Day,” complete with a kid sidekick who is teaching him about the ways of the world. His hulking body contrasts the hollowness his character feels pretty aptly. His chemistry with Hodge and Brosnan—who are oozing with so much charisma—is great. As for the rest of the cast, Centineo, Sarah, Quintessa, Bodhi, and Amer are very endearing and lovable. Kenzari has no option but to be one-note. But since I didn’t go in expecting a complex villain, I didn’t mind it too much.
All in all, “Black Adam” is a movie worth watching on the big screen. Go watch it with your friends and family or on your own. Just ensure that the projector is working well, and the sound is dialed up to eleven, and I’m sure you’ll have a great time. With that out of the way, I want to talk about Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made genre-defining horror films like “House of Wax” and “Orphan.” Although the film flopped and was panned critically, I’ve watched “Goal II: Living the Dream” at least a dozen times. His collaboration with Liam Neeson has given us “Unknown,” “The Commuter,” “Non-Stop,” and “Run All Night.” “The Shallows” is one of the greatest shark films of all time. And it looks like he has entered a phase where he’ll be collaborating with Dwayne Johnson. But the troubling part of this collaboration is that it isn’t allowing my man Jaume to truly shine. So, I genuinely hope that changes and he returns to the kind of movies he does best (low-budget, tense, cold, and action-packed) while taking Dwayne along with him.