MOVIE | Grim and pretentious, the latest installment in the DC franchise feels like a missed opportunity
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➤ Rated PG-13
➤ S1 / V6 / L4*
Movies in the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros. Pictures’ superhero franchise, usually suffer from self-importance and uneven pacing. The one exception was 2019’s Shazam!—a movie about a kid who turns into an adult superhero when he gets magic powers from a wizard. Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson, is supposedly a sequel to Shazam!—don’t expect to actually see Zachary Levi’s Shazam—but despite some attempts at levity, the movie feels more like the DCEU’s drearier films.
Black Adam is set in Kahndaq—a fictional Middle Eastern country oppressed by a multinational criminal organization known as Intergang. Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), an archaeologist with anti-colonialism views, thinks she can save her country by digging up magical relics. Instead, she unleashes an ancient super-powered being, Black Adam (Johnson). Adam has Shazam’s godlike powers, but has used them recklessly, so he’s spent most of the last 5,000 years imprisoned by the wizard who granted him those powers. Adrianna, along with her son (Bodhi Sabongui) and brother (Mohammed Amer, who might be the best part of the movie), must convince Adam to help Kahndaq before their oppressors become all-powerful.
The United States government complicates the situation by sending the Justice Society of America—not to be confused with the Justice League of America—to neutralize this new superhuman threat. The JSA, making its cinematic debut, comprises Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).
Black Adam is somewhat entertaining, but the movie feels like a missed opportunity. There’s a good film hiding somewhere in this mess, but director Jaume Collet-Serra just couldn’t find it.
The movie wants to say important things—never a good idea in the superhero genre—but the political messaging gets muddled in the clumsy script. Characters spout rhetoric blaming the world’s problems on colonialism. Good characters say Kahndaq needs freedom, especially in the face of what’s portrayed as police brutality. The villain says Kahndaq “used to be something better than free”—he wants to make Kahndaq great again.
The JSA and Adam face a moral quandary. The JSA doesn’t kill, but Adam does. Adam intervenes on behalf of the oppressed, but the JSA doesn’t. But tossing these ethical and political tropes into the script ends in empty signaling because the movie doesn’t grapple with any of them. The filmmakers use talking points from the political left, but they arrange them so poorly that a far-right viewer could interpret Black Adam as suggesting nationalistic uprising is the proper response to tyranny imposed by multicultural forces.
Inept political subtext isn’t the only thing that hurts Black Adam. Despite the action, the movie gets boring. Only die-hard comics fans have heard of Black Adam or the JSA, so the movie wastes time on DC lore and backstory with tedious flashbacks and exposition.
The action sequences sound one note—big. The big battle at the end isn’t really any bigger than the big battle in the beginning or the big battle in the middle. Having a main character with limitless power lowers the stakes on fight scenes, no matter how big.
I hate to say it because I’m a fan of The Rock, but the biggest problem with Black Adam is probably Dwayne Johnson. Johnson’s one of the film’s producers, and this movie has been a passion project for him. In the comics, Black Adam is something of an anti-hero, but Johnson attempts to turn him into a character who can carry the weight of the struggling DC franchise. But the actor is a bad fit for the part. Johnson has spent his entire film career crafting the image of a likable, good-natured hunk who spouts witty one-liners. In this movie, he just growls and glowers, and the effect feels discordant.
The film, grim and pretentious, makes a few feeble attempts at humor, but they fall flat. Maybe Johnson can lighten up in the next installment, because of course there will be a sequel.
*Ratings from kids-in-mind.com, with quantity of sexual (S), violent (V), and foul-language (L) content on a 0-10 scale, with 10 high
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