Black Adam plays like a cinematic paradox. It delivers visual spectacle that’s ambitious and expensive, but at the service of lazy, uneven storytelling. As the title character, Dwayne Johnson shows all the charisma and gravitas that made him a durable superstar. At the same time, his acting and wrestling legacies serve as distractions–this never feels like Black Adam so much as the Rock playing Superhero Rock. (I was fully prepared for Johnson to arch his trademarked eyebrow for the camera and bust up a few bad guys with a folding chair.) Long story short, this Adam smasher may be dense with plot and packed with action, but everything rings curiously hollow.
The opening scenes are especially dispiriting. Like so many modern comic book movies–I’m looking right at Wonder Woman 1984–this one kicks off with a torrent of soul-shriveling voice-over. Rather than, I don’t know, just telling the damn story, the filmmakers feel they must spoon-feed us gobs of exposition. And here we are, like grouchy toddlers choking down gooey dollops of pureed squash.
Oh well, kids. Open up the hangar, here comes the airplane! Five thousand years ago, the fictional kingdom of Kahndaq was ruled by a cruel tyrant. That is, until a slave boy inherits the powers of Shazam and sets his country free. That savior, Teth Adam (Johnson), is then banished to an earthen tomb, for reasons the filmmakers will conceal until convenient. (When that moment arrives, there’s a strong chance you won’t care anymore.)
Cut to present day. Kahndaq is in a modern version of the same quandary from years ago. The new overlords are called Intergang, and they pillage the country for its resources and repress the citizens with their fascist ways. These high-tech thugs covet the Crown of Sabbac, a powerful MacGuffin that grants demonic strength to anyone who wears it.
As you might expect, it falls to a plucky team of good guys to keep the MacGuffin out of the wrong hands. Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) leads the crew, which is rounded out by her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui). Oh yeah, there’s also Ismael (Marwan Kenzari), but he seems awkward and superfluous. I think y’all know what that means!
Heroes and villains converge on the crown simultaneously, and all hell breaks loose. In a moment of desperation, Adrianna summons Teth Adam, who promptly pries open a big ol’ can of whoop-ass. He flies, punches, and unloads lightning bolts from every bodily orifice. It’s like Superman meets Shazam (Sha-zoo-per-man?), but with the appearance of that guy from the Witch Mountain reboot.
What’s that, you wanna load this sucker down with even more plot? Done and done, my friends. The movie introduces something we need like a bag of stale Funyuns: Yet another superhero team!!! Yay! Here’s the roster: We’ve got Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), not to be confused with Marvel’s Hawkeye or Falcon. Or the Fall Guy. This dude has golden wings and a cool helmet. Then there’s Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a young woman who can control the wind and infuse it with purple and green streamers–like Mardi Gras! And…there’s Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who can get really big and punchy. Finally, we meet Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan). He’s a discount Dr. Strange with a golden helmet and a wicked mustache.
If that seems like too much movie, that’s probably because it is. Black Adam bloats from too many characters and too much plot. The filmmakers don’t develop the superhero team enough for them to be compelling. They just kinda show up and flash a few CGI powers. Even worse, their vibe fits with the main Black Adam plot like oil and water. It’s almost like two different movies poured into the same stew pot. Black Adam needs to be either way longer or shorter, and I honestly can’t say which.
As for the performances, my thoughts are a tangle. Nobody does…bad work here. As a movie star, Johnson has some of the same blessing and curse of John Wayne. Whether playing Genghis Khan or Davy Crockett, John Wayne couldn’t shed his outsized personality or embellish his limited acting range. Likewise, it’s impossible to separate Black Adam from the man playing him. This just seems like a variation on the Rock. An unknown actor would’ve stripped expectations away from the character, and would’ve benefited the movie enormously.
When it comes to the players around the Rock, Brosnan and Hodge rate the highest. Brosnan is an old-fashioned movie star, and his freewheeling panache is badly needed. On the flip, Hodge resonates strength and conviction so well that I’d like to see Hawkman in a better movie.
Without giving anything away, Black Adam ends how you’d expect: Indestructible beings trying to destroy each other with their fists. As always, the only lasting result is CGI rubble. It’s not boring, but nothing about Adam is particularly exciting, either. No movie with a budget this big and an actor so memorable should ever be so forgettable.
125 min. In theaters and on demand.