Editor’s Note: A Daily staffer is affiliated with Warner Bros., but they were not involved in the creation, production or publication of this piece.
Leading up to its release, “Black Adam” was marketed as a classic superhero epic with a twist. While “Black Adam” has some heart, well-placed humor and flashy action sequences, it makes for a puzzling and chaotic viewing experience.
The movie follows DC’s mightiest god Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson, “DC League of Super-Pets”) after he is released from a 5,000-year imprisonment. He uses his powers recklessly and is pursued by the Justice Society of America (JSA). The cast of characters is completed by archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi, “Sex/Life”), her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer, “Mo Amer: Mohammed in Texas”) and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui, “The Baby-Sitters Club”), who impulsively free Black Adam when they are pursued by oppressive militant forces after recovering a power-wielding artifact. The JSA and Black Adam eventually team up to take down the real antagonist of the story, demonic supervillain Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari, “Aladdin”), who gets his hands on the magical relic.
Character origin movies are tricky to get right, as it’s often difficult to make exposition engaging. An effective origin story creates enough empathy to persuade the audience to connect with the characters — but this film suffers from a lack of a thoughtful approach for how the audience bonds with its unfamiliar characters. Black Adam’s own origin story is split into two parts, both confusing, leaving the audience without proper context for a decent portion of the movie’s runtime. The strange chronology of “Black Adam” pushes the reveal of the titular antihero’s emotional side toward the end of the story, failing to leave time to build any viewer compassion.
As for the JSA, formed by Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan, “GoldenEye”), Hawkman (Aldis Hodge, “Green Lantern: Beware My Power”), Cyclone (Quintess Swindell, “Master Gardener”) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”), there isn’t much to talk about. The four are thrust into the story with no background and therefore feel like strangers for the film’s entirety. I might exclude Dr. Fate from this, as he somehow managed to have me rooting for him. This may be because he plays the wise, white-haired elder with extraordinary powers who we all recognize — or maybe it’s just the Brosnan charm leftover from his Bond days.
I expected a more satisfying visual experience for a movie with such a staggering budget of $195 million. Maybe my 21st-century eyes have become too accustomed to the impressive works of Zack Snyder’s “300,” Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” but I found the garish visual effects less than tasteful. Similarly, the frequency of slow-motion scenes was overwhelming. There is a time and place for this effect — I could appreciate the slo-mo action sequence to The Rolling Stones’s “Paint it, Black” — but overuse of any cinematic technique becomes diverting, and here it was almost comical. It seems “Black Adam” saw slow motion as the only way to build tension and drama and overestimated the endurance of its effect. Although I found the film’s presentation to be gauche, “Black Adam” indisputably does deliver on its promises of “epic” action sequences and satisfies the hopes of its thrill-seeking fans.
Despite the lightning bursting from Black Adam’s fingertips and the solid gold wings on Hawkman’s back, the repeated child endangerment of Amon by Adrianna seems the most far-fetched and irritating aspect of this movie — especially when Amon feels more like an object to be saved than an actual character. When Amon rolls into view on his skateboard with a small mass of powerless civilians to fight a skeleton army from Hell, the banality of it all is inescapable. Adrianna, Karim and Amon feel like distractions from the actual story, taking time that could have been devoted to the character development of the JSA.
“Black Adam” left me with many questions, and not the good “What happens next?” kind. I still don’t know who the members of the JSA are or what their real purpose is, nor do I understand the connection between Shazam and Black Adam. The mother lode of mythical power that is Black Adam’s home is also lost on me. The missed opportunity to appropriately introduce characters that will surely become central in the next DC era harms this movie’s ability to set a solid stage for the future. Someone should have told “Black Adam” the only reason the newest Spider-Man and Batman ditched their origin stories is that they’ve reached the point of redundancy. In a story like “Black Adam” in which each character is plucked straight from the comics to be imagined on the screen for the first time, context is welcomed and encouraged. Luckily for DC fans, opportunities to acquaint themselves with the JSA will arise in the follow-up films to “Black Adam.”
This film could have made a bold statement in the DC Extended Universe. But though “Black Adam” offers something new, it isn’t enough. For example, not only did “The Batman” (2022) introduce audiences to an alien version of Bruce Wayne, but it rejected the superhero blockbuster formula and executed its presentation as a grittier callback to comic book nostalgia and neo-noir mystery with great success. While “Black Adam” turns the DC hero trope on its head with a morally ambiguous lead, it fails to deconstruct the expectations of its genre and breathe life into its characters and story.
Johnson’s long-overdue superhero performance is the highlight of this film (aside from the post-credits scene, but I’ll keep quiet about that). Despite the flaws of this movie, Johnson is a natural to this role and will no doubt be the reason many DC fans become loyal to Black Adam. While this movie deserves some snaps for its brave efforts to revive a genre standing on shaky ground, it lacks the vision necessary to execute the tall order. But hey, everyone loves a comeback story.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.