It makes perfect sense to cast Dwayne Johnson as a superhero. Actually, it might make too much sense. Like, it’s a little too on-the-nose. Here’s a guy that is tremendously built and athletically gifted, with a seemingly unlimited arsenal of charisma, money, and fame. Heck, the guy spent years convincing arenas full of people that he could hurt his wrestling opponents just by taking off his elbow pad, doing a silly little dance, bouncing off the ropes, and falling on them elbow-first. He practically has superpowers already. So “Black Adam” has to do something special in the script department to make this movie stand out from every other Dwayne Johnson actioner. The good news is that it does. The bad news is that what it does do differently, it doesn’t do very well.
In a nutshell, Teth-Adam (he isn’t called “Black” Adam until late in the movie) is an ancient warrior from the kingdom of Kahndaq, imbued with powers from the same council of wizards responsible for Shazam in the DC Extended Universe. Entombed for 5,000 years, he is awakened by Dr. Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), under life-threatening orders from henchmen of the evil Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari). In his disoriented state, Adam doesn’t know who he can trust, but it sure isn’t the goons pointing weapons at him. He sets about on a killing spree, taking out immediate threats, then their reinforcements, then those people’s reinforcements, and so on until he’s a threat on a global scale.
Adam soon attracts the attention of the Justice Society of America. A team led by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) is dispatched to Kahndaq to neutralize the threat, even though they have little understanding of who they’re up against or how to deal with him. Other members of the team include the brainy Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), mammoth Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and prophetic Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). The JSA assume they’re the white knights to Adam’s…blackness, but he operates more in a world of gray, and so do they, even if they don’t want to admit it. The real threat comes from Ishmael, who means to harm Tomaz’s son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) if he doesn’t get what he wants. Perhaps a team-up is in order?
Adam, like most superheroes, comes with a ton of emotional baggage, largely related to his son Hurut (Jalon Christian/Uli Latukefu). The movie spends an exhausting amount of time on Adam and Hurut’s backstory, and even more time on unnecessary characters. Cyclone and Atom Smasher are only in this movie to fill out the JSA’s numbers and provide some unwelcome comic relief. Johnson alone is all the comedic talent this movie needs. The same can be said for Dr. Tomaz’s electrician brother Karim (Mohammed Amer). I’ll let Amon skate (literally), but the movie could have toned down the character’s 90’s-style obnoxiousness and fanboy tendencies.
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Adam’s distinguishing characteristic is that he’s eager to kill people, a trait usually seen from “heroes” on the fringes of the big franchises and not from main members of the Avengers or Justice League (it is implied that the latter is in Adam’s future). For a character this homicidal to work, the movie really needs R-rated violence, not PG-13 toothlessness. I know it would cost this movie its teenage audience to go with an R rating, but fans can sniff out a neutered R-rated property a mile away, and the results are often disastrous. Johnson carrying a superhero movie makes for a surefire hit, but did it have to be this plodding, overstuffed, sterilized, frankly uninteresting take on “Black Adam”?
“Black Adam” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.