DC Comics and Warner Bros. needed Black Adam to succeed. Billed as its own reinvention of the floundering DC cinematic universe – one fraught with out-of-canon hits like Joker and The Batman as well as problematic releases like The Flash – expectations were high for a new DC film fronted by Hollywood’s leading star man himself. Unfortunately, the Rock is one of Black Adam‘s many problems, which combine to make it a lacklustre and easily forgettable entry in the increasingly bloated comic-book movie canon.
Dwayne Johnson stars as the eponymous anti-hero, a relic locked away on his home world of Kahndaq for thousands of years. Possessing similar abilities to another DC hero, Shazam, his violent resurgence against his planet’s imperial occupiers lands him on the radar of one Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who commissions the Justice Society of heroes to pacify Black Adam and put a stop to the unrest.
After years of two-plus-change hour entires into the DCEU, Black Adam certainly feels trim. Excluding credits it comes in below that 120-minute mark, and consequently it feels like not an awful lot happens. It’s mostly down to a script that lacks any sort of invention or flair, instead plodding through a formulaic comic-book caper that never feels especially gripping. It doesn’t have any of the nuanced character writing of The Batman, or narrative surprises of The Suicide Squad, and instead just feels very by-the-numbers.
It’s not helped by the major problem that, if you really think about it, Black Adam as a character actually has a point. The film bills him as a murky antihero who is lambasted by American superheroes and governmental figures alike for tearing down Khandaq’s militant occupiers, accidentally positioning themselves as pro-empire stormtroopers in the process. The script, penned by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, is ultimately too scared to interrogate this any further. Instead of looking at a legacy of western imperialism and perceived white saviourism, Black Adam instead introduces a third-act CGI baddie to do away with any deeper debates it may have inadvertently spouted.
Another troublesome feature is a leading man who, as is becoming something of a trend, has nothing especially exciting to bring to the table. It’s no doubt down in equal parts to weak characterisation, but Johnson’s performance is mundane and devoid of personality. By the time the end credits roll – themselves a pre-amble to the film’s most discussed scene – you know Black Adam’s secrets, but nothing to make you invest in him as you would, say, Tom Hardy’s Venom. His line delivery is stiff, his backstory told solely through exposition dumps, and this character who should feel like an exciting new presence in the DC universe instead just feels like yet another Rock alter ego.
It’s a real shame, because there are glimmers of a more interesting film in here. Black Adam is mostly set on the intergalactic planet of Kahndaq, but there’s no effort here to make it distinct at all from Earth. If the film had leaned into its more fantastical elements, instead of backloading its forays into heaven, hell and supernatural forces, it would’ve been a lot less forgettable. The supporting cast of the Justice Society are woefully underwritten, too: Aldis Hodge’s Hawkman and Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate are both fascinating characters, but are mostly just reduced to exposition farms or brief foils in combat sequences.
This all results in a film that’s completely vacuous: no personality, no flair, and none of the interesting character work and richer themes that make DC’s best films stand out from their MCU brethren. Black Adam is not the new dawn many at Warner Bros. were hoping for, instead feeling like the sort of film that wouldn’t have felt out of place if it released two decades ago.
Black Adam is available to rent digitally as a Movie Premiere at Home now, with a DVD and Blu-Ray release scheduled for January 16, 2023.