Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise) — Screenplay by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani.
Does anyone really know what Warner Bros. Discovery and DC Comics are doing with their immensely popular comic book characters on the big screen? Half the time it sounds like they want to copy what Disney and Marvel are doing, and the other half it sounds like they want to do a little bit of everything. That latter suggestion is unfocused but it is also a little bit exciting that they are prepared to do anything. That we can get a deeply gritty Halloween-set Batman film and a more brightly colored tongue-in-cheek superhero comedy for all ages in Shazam! with DC Comics is good fun, but I’m not sure fans, general audiences, or the higher-ups are on the same page. Some fans want a patient build-up in the vein of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some want a return to Nolan-esque grittiness, and others are desperate for Zack Snyder’s vision for the DC universe to live on. Time will tell if they can have it all, but, in trying to appeal to the most amount of people, Jaume Collet-Serra’s underdeveloped Black Adam raises some eyebrows, as it feels very much like a film that has been tinkered with by higher-ups so much over the years that it has gone stale, which is a shame since Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson has been waiting for 15 years to make his mark as the titular antihero.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam takes place in the fictional country Kahndaq, which in modern times is oppressed by the high-tech criminal group known as the Intergang. In an attempt to find a mystical and historical crown, a local archaeologist (played by Sarah Shahi) makes her way into an ancient cave, where she is intercepted by Intergang. Fearing for her life, and the lives of her associates and brother, the archeologist reads out the magical incantation meant to free Teth-Adam (played by Dwayne Johnson), Kahndaq’s ancient people’s champion from 2600 BC, from his tomb. She awakens an uber-powerful and somewhat selfish superpowered man, who keeps the archaeologists out of harm and then slaughters the members of Intergang that had intercepted them. However, Teth-Adam, the titular character, is wounded and passes out. When he wakes up, he finds himself in the archaeologist’s apartment, where her son (played by Bodhi Sabongui) tries to convince him to be their champion once again. Meanwhile, a group of similarly gifted heroes, the Justice Society, are sent to Kahndaq to prevent Teth-Adam from doing harm.
Let’s talk about tone. Few films are as far apart in tone as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or The Batman and Shazam! or Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man. The character of Black Adam feels right at home in the darker vision of the DC Extended Universe, but perhaps this idea that his character is connected to the more youthful and comedic tone of Davis Sandberg’s Shazam! is an idea that made its way into reshoots. Because while the character has all of the importance, trauma, and power of a Zack Snyder DC character, his character is, in Black Adam, in a film that feels closer to Joss Whedon’s mismanaged Justice League film. It features several jokes that miss completely, and the few jokes that hit are few and far between. There are some really cheesy lines of dialogue, cheesy editing, and on-the-nose distracting needle drops. The inclusion of a kid trying to teach the titular character about all things superheroes also just feels at odds with the kind of character the film is trying to build. This film wants to explore whether being a hero is black or white, but this topic feels underdeveloped.
The same can be said for the do-good superhero team that arrives to dispose of the dangerous titular character. Although some of these characters’ comic book origins predate that of similar Marvel characters, the DC superhero group ‘the Justice Society’ ends up feeling like a knock-off version of both DC’s the Justice League and Marvel’s the Avengers. This is in part because of similar underexplained power sets (and one character’s generic costume), but mostly because the entire team is so hastily introduced and thinly written. Hawkman is just angry, Atom Smasher is an inexperienced goofball, et cetera, et cetera. However, Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate, think Doctor Strange but with a mystical golden helmet from another planet, is a highlight, in spite of how underwritten the part is. It doesn’t reach the potential of the main character or the supporting characters, and the film’s actual villain is awful and absolutely forgettable.
Structurally, the film also feels quite unoriginal and underwritten as the plot beats feel borrowed from other, better superhero films, while the film, in general, is comprised of several CGI-heavy battles and dull exposition dumps (it also doesn’t help that some scenes have been edited in a distracting way). Is there nothing good to say about this film, you might ask? Well, I think it is somewhat entertaining in a theme-park-ride and popcorn movie kind of way, and, even though his character is not as charismatic as your usual Dwayne Johnson character is, it is fun to see the very likable Rock take on this genre. The film is just too generic to leave much of an impact on you, which is a shame because there are some interesting story threads, like how this film is essentially about a superhero trying to free his country from oppression (and, in a way, it is also about interventionism, yet this topic is also underdeveloped), but the film is frustratingly more interested in CGI lightning than that kind of story, which is a shame.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam is a moderately entertaining but, ultimately, quite generic and underdeveloped superhero origin story that fails to elevate the titular character to be anything more than just the next hero in line. I don’t think it’s an awful superhero film, but it is a very generic one with notable underdeveloped elements, and, while I am a fan of this successful sub-genre, I think we should begin to hold them to a higher standard this far down the line than to just accept underdeveloped entries, especially since the studio has such a likable true star in this leading role. He, like the character, deserves more, and so do we.
5.7 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.