Dwayne Johnson flexes his huge muscles as the titular anti-hero in Black Adam – and it’s an ambitious, but flawed, superhero film.
When Dwayne Johnson’s main character, Teth-Adam, wakes from a 5,000 year slumber and is discovered by former university professor-turned resistance fighter Adrianna and her son Amon, he immediately turns their lives upside down.
When they take him home and attempt to explain modern times, he ends up accidentally wreaking havoc with his powers – burning their furniture and steadfastly refusing to use doors. Somewhat surprisingly, the family seem relatively unphased by the carnage, casually explaining that they can fix everything. They don’t even put out the fire, which magically disappears shortly after.
This is just one example (albeit a slightly silly one) of the many issues with the latest film in the DC Extended Universe.
Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra reunites here with Johnson then for Black Adam. The story of the anti-hero, whose powers hail from the same source as Shazam’s, is an ambitious one to tell. And in fairness, this is undeniably an ambitious film. However, what it wants to be and what it is are two very different things and it ends up feeling overstuffed.
We begin with the familiar origins story. A voiceover tells us that Teth-Adam was a slave, forced to mine the magical rock Eternium for the greedy king of Kahndaq in 2600 BC. This king seeks to use the Eternium to forge the Crown of Sabbac – if you couldn’t tell, this is the film’s MacGuffin, which it’s overly reliant on – which is powered by demons and gives the wearer great power. After attempting to stage a revolt Teth-Adam is taken to be executed, but is instead granted the power of Shazam, which he uses to kill the king who subjugated his people. He then enters the aforementioned slumber and his story becomes legend. Splendid.
Cue beginning number two (it’s not the last, either) as we fast forward to the present day. The people of Kahndaq are still oppressed – this time by an occupying military force. Adrianna and her brother are resistance fighters trying to find the Crown before the military does. Instead, they find Teth-Adam.
What follows is one of the most fun, carnage-filled action sequences I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie. It’s really refreshing to get a film featuring a character who’s more of an anti-hero, and who’s unbothered by the ethics of their situation. As far as he’s concerned, he kills bad guys and they deserve it. The first action scenes make this very clear. There’s some surprisingly graphic stuff, and it’s joyous to behold.
However, this becomes slightly repetitive as the entire movie becomes a string of battle sequences. Black Adam then begins a third time (explaining this plot is exhausting) when it introduces the Justice Society – not Justice League, just another group with a similar name and purpose. Comprised of Aldis Hodge’s Hawkman, Pierce Brosnan’s Dr. Fate, Noah Centineo as Atom Smasher and Quintessa Swindell as Cyclone, the group sees Teth-Adam’s power as a threat which must be neutralised.
These multiple beginnings are necessary to introduce all the main players, but this film feels distinctly like a middle installment. It could have easily focused on Teth-Adam’s origins, or him liberating Kahndaq from its military occupation. The Justice Society plot could have waited until the potential sequel. Instead, it feels like a significant amount of the character’s story has been fast-forwarded to get to the action in this film. As a result it’s too full of characters and plot and not nearly detailed enough.
The Justice Society, and in fact all of the supporting characters here, are introduced in a way that’s simply rushed. Very little is said about their origins, and what is said is shoehorned into the dialogue. They spend the majority of the time engaged in CGI-heavy battles that are badly paced. Sometimes they’re a whirlwind of super-speed movement, other times there’s a clear over-reliance on slow motion, which has long been out of fashion.
When they’re not on the battlefield, Noah Centineo is relegated to being the comic relief while Pierce Brosnan waxes lyrical about the nature of fate, and Aldis Hodge squabbles with a constantly stoney-faced Dwayne Johnson. Meanwhile Quintessa Swindell is just caught in the middle of it all with an unfortunate lack of things to do.
There are some interesting thoughts behind Black Adam's story. It clearly has things to say about the wrongness of Western occupations of foreign countries. It points out the hypocrisy of the Justice Society, too, as a group of “Western saviour” types who attempt to come in to save people only to cause a ton of collateral damage when their presence isn’t wanted in the first place. However, any deeper points the film could have made are lost in the constant conflict between Teth-Adam, the Justice Society and the military antagonists. It just feels like a lot of fighting, and not all of it is interesting.
When it comes to concluding, it does so on two occasions. The villain’s motivations, which are revealed at the last moment, turn out to be rather silly. Not only that, but this “first ending” is quite anti-climactic despite feeling like a resolution. Then it just carries on and culminates in an actual ending that feels a lot like that of Wonder Woman. It’s a disappointing CGI-fest.
The character of Black Adam is interesting, and so are some of the themes presented in this film. Structurally speaking, though, this superhero movie is quite baffling. With three beginnings, two endings, and a whole lot of underdeveloped characters, this just isn’t a winning formula for DC.
Black Adam is in cinemas now.
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