(for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language)
Released: October 21, 2022
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Pierce Brosnon, Aldis Hodge, Odelya Halevi, Mohammed Amer, Noah Centineo, Quintessa Swindell, Marwan Kenzari, Bodhi Sabongui
Black Adam is, in so many ways, a blockbuster inbreeding of the DCEU and WWE.
That may be a glib, obvious parallel to draw given Dwayne Johnson’s status as the most popular pro wrestler in this century, but even if the actor formerly known as The Rock had never been associated with that industry, the comparisons would be apt. Both are fueled and defined by the same base sensibility: bombastic machismo.
The big screen debut of DC’s black-clad antihero plays at one speed (full throttle!) and at one volume (11!). A relentless assault in literally every way, Black Adam is paced like a feature-length trailer. It could be in the running for The Least Subtle Movie ever made, which is saying something.
To be clear: that’s not all bad.
It’s not great, either, and it can be an endurance test at times (even upfront where, in a lengthy prologue, familiar comic lore beats instantly trigger superhero fatigue), but Johnson and his Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra commit to this balls-to-the-wall comic book cage match with gleeful, unapologetic bravado.
Black Adam is a dumb popcorn movie (the 5000-year-old title character speaks perfect English somehow, and even slings around modern lingo like “catchphrase”), but every cent of its $200 million budget is all up there on the screen; giant format and premium sound recommended. Black Adam can’t help but entertain, even if its primary goal is to simply pummel you.
This tentpole’s virtue is that it knows exactly what it’s doing and does it unapologetically. Like the WWE, Black Adam is self-conscious by design, putting on a raucous show with zero pretense or delusion of being anything other than that. Its very ambitions are to be crowd-pleasing, not thought-provoking, and to be so in shameless, gratuitous fashion. (Reportedly, it took four edits before the ratings board would reduce it from an R to a PG-13.)
When some comic book movies are pitched as having been made “for the fans,” one often senses that the actors and filmmakers involved were secretly hoping (even expecting) that their efforts would also be taken seriously on some level – especially entries from the tormented Snyderverse (in which Black Adam clearly exists, not just in the interconnected narrative but also in Snyder’s gaudy graphic-novel super slo-mo excesses).
Black Adam has no desire to be taken seriously. It’s here to put on a spectacle and have fun doing it. Black Adam is singularly and sincerely for the fans, and that unabashed populist ethos (while limiting and, at times, numbing) is refreshing.
The movie kicks off with an ancient origin story set over 5000 years in the past. It’s needlessly long, and the gist is that Teth-Adam (Johnson) — a buried slave who’d been given powers by the gods — is resurrected in our time. Set in the fictional, oppressed Arab nation of Kahndaq, the modern locals see him as a hoped-for savior, but to the rest of the world he’s a threat. Indestructible and possessed with superpowers, Teth-Adam is guided by outdated modes of “might makes right” violence as a way to secure and maintain order. He’s like if Superman broke bad.
Enter the Justice Society, yet another group of superheroes tasked with maintaining peace in the world. This crew is small (a quartet), led by longtime friends and allies Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnon). Together, they seek to stop Teth-Adam from being unleashed on the world.
Teth-Adam fits the label of antihero well. His intentions are actually noble but, given his barbaric, violent tactics (the only paradigm he understands), he’s a threat.
The plot goes through a progression of confrontations, from Adam fighting bad Kahndaqians to Adam sparring with the Justice Society, to Adam and the Justice Society eventually joining forces to defeat the true evil villain (who emerges as the result of a coveted magical crown falling into the wrong hands). Collectively, these showdowns play out like tag-team battles on superhero steroids, each leaving wanton destruction in their wake.
While Brosnan brings some cool sophistication to the testosterone overkill, other performances are closer the flexing, posing archetypes of pro wrestling – Johnson especially, who plays more to the crowd than to his character, stopping just short of blatantly pandering to audiences with the meta eyebrow raise (his signature Rock look) they’re probably hoping for. (I wouldn’t be surprised if they shot it but then left it on the proverbial cutting room floor.)
While Black Adam likely won’t expand the fandom of the DCEU beyond its current base, that base should be entertained. Moreover, its general tone feels like a step in a better direction, i.e. Black Adam lives in the recognizable Snyderverse, but one finally set free from being so dour and heavy-laden.
Similar to the Shazam! and Aquaman solo entries, Black Adam embraces the comic book construct rather than deconstructing it – and the heroic tone of its mid-credits bonus scene would seem to suggest that Warners plans on bringing that sensibility to the entire DCEU. Indeed, if DC wants to compete with Marvel at the multiplex, it needs to keep doing that.