Black Adam is one of only two film premieres released in theaters from Warner Bros. and is the only comic book property from a long list of promised premieres. It tells the origins of Black Adam, a lesser known DC comics character who is most closely associated with Shazam as his direct arch nemesis. Though the film does keep the direct connection to Shazam through the acquisition of Black Adam’s powers, it mostly shifts the rest of his story to more closely align with the role of “anti-hero” (though not really even that) to have Black Adam essentially be a building block or launchpad for the universe of DC films moving forward, unsurprisingly so considering the movie stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the titular role. The movie also had a well known cast filling out the remainder of the roles with Aldis Hodge (Hawkman/Carter Hall), Noah Centineo (Atom Smasher/Albert Rothstein), Sarah Shahi (Adrianna Tomaz), Quintessa Swindell (Cyclone/Maxine Hunkel), Pierce Brosnan (Doctor Fate/Kent Nelson), and many others for both major, minor, and cameo roles. The movie had a reported budget of roughly $200 million (which means it was probably on the other side of 300 and closer to 400 million). All in all, Black Adam was intended to be a success for the current tumultuous ship of the Warner Bros and Discovery merger. And it sure was a movie…SPOILERS below.
So, I don’t want to mislead or just completely bash this film. In truth, it was a fine film. I would probably put it square in the middle of the eleven DC Extended Universe films though on the tail end to be sure. And it could be an enjoyable viewable experience under the right conditions and expectations similar to how the Fast and Furious franchise and other big budget action films can be fun. Essentially, if you want to just go and enjoy a big budget action flick, this is not the worst option by far, but to attempt to relaunch a failed cinematic universe again and use as an obvious launching pad for characters and films, Black Adam was probably a misstep.
Again, I do not wish to simply bash this film, so let me state what worked and was good. First off, the fight and action scenes. The fighting and action sequences in Black Adam were stellar and easily among the best of the DC films. They were very, for lack of a better term, comic booky while still feeling real and possible. They seemed like a video game without being fully artificial. You could feel the force of the punches and falls and the weight and slog of the fight as it continued. As expected, Johnson delivered on the action as he usually does. Second, the movie was colorful. I don’t mean in tone or context, though it managed that too, but that the film was not in constant dark gradient or shading, and the events on screen could actually be seen. The costumes of the heroes were also comic book accurate, colorful, and still worked on screen unlike earlier DC films.
Third, the cast was spectacular. Even with minimal screen time (as most was given to Johnson), each actor made full use of their time to make their character well rounded, likeable, and enjoyable to see on screen. Neither Hodge nor Brosnan get a lot of time to develop their characters or backstory, but they both manage to have presence and even a small sense of gravitas (Brosnan a bit more than Hodge but c’mon…) on screen. Even without knowing either character’s (potential?) backstory from the comics, the audience still grasps a sense of wisdom derived from age and world weariness from their performances. Centineo and Swindell also have an immediate chemistry from their first shared scene that works well for their pairing. Both also embody the “inexperienced thrown into exceptional circumstances” with aplomb, and I say that as someone who really does not get the fascination and interest in Centineo. But he plays his role rather well here. Beyond the JSA, Shahi does an exceptional job of carrying the emotional and moral stakes of the film on her shoulders. Most, if not all, of the film’s pathos lies at her feet.
Now, on to what did not work. To begin, the characterization of Teth Adam aka Black Adam. Throughout the whole movie, Carter Hall keeps calling Adam a villain for the simple reason that he kills people instead of imprisoning them or giving due process. This doesn’t really work for two major reasons: Adam only kills villains and every DC hero with a solo film has killed people, indirectly been responsible for deaths because of apathy/negligence, and has made billions of dollars in unnecessary and wanton property damage that would have resulted in mass deaths as well. Trying to set up this version of Black Adam as a villain doesn’t work. Hell, trying to claim him as an anti-hero doesn’t really work well either because the DC film universe is very much not the DC comic universe. The only “hero” who has actually followed through on the “no kill” rule has been, ironically, Shazam, so comparing Adam’s choices to the larger universe doesn’t set him apart. Really, Black Adam is just another “hero” in the DCEU. The other issue with Black Adam as a character is that he is played by Dwayne Johnson. Johnson is a charismatic and charming person, but he is not exactly the most versatile actor. Without a strong partner in every scene, he kind of flounders which is an issue when a film is entirely set on him.
The film, outside of Black Adam, is vastly underdeveloped on every front. There really is not any set villain or antagonist. Sure, there are people, demons, and organizations that Black Adam and crew fight, but none really seemed or felt like the major villain of the film. Intergang is presented as a major foreign invader with international connections and power (which is comics accurate) but then falls by the wayside midway through the film. The JSA comes in as an antagonist to Black Adam but then become pseudo allies though the film makes it incredibly clear throughout that they are not really a threat to Black Adam. Even the foil of the Demon’s Champion in direct contrast to Black Adam does not pose a threat to him nor is ever really explained or developed. There is a McGuffin introduced in the form of a rock/mineral called Eternium that only exists in Kahndaq, but we are never told what it is, what it is for, or how it works in any fashion. We also never learn or are given hints as to why Amanda Waller (yeah she’s back) knows of Black Adam or the JSA or why the JSA would work with Waller considering her and Hall’s opposing views on killing. In short, there are a lot of elements in the film that don’t go anywhere or are nothing more than mentions even though they are supposedly integral to the plot.
As well, for all the good fights in the film, the 3rd act final battle ends up being an anticlimactic CGI slugfest that never seems like an actual threat. That was an unfortunate constant of the film. Even though the fights looked great, there were never any stakes. At no point in any of the fights, did it appear that Black Adam was going to lose. Even when facing his supposed foil in the Demon’s Champion, he suffered a few cuts before tearing the demon in half with his bare hands. Adam was outnumbered 4 to 1 by the JSA with the most powerful Lord of Order on their side and the fight seemed like a slight inconvenience for Adam. If there are no threats to the hero and his cause, then what exactly is the story or conflict?
Black Adam is an enjoyable action film, especially if you are a fan of Johnson, if you just want a big spectacle that you do not have to pay much attention to. However, if you are interested in a cohesive, engaging, well developed story full of three dimensional characters, this is not it. And it is most certainly not the film you want to use to launch another attempt at a cinematic universe. Entertaining enough but does not exactly have legs to go forward.