At this point we’ve seen roughly 19 million superhero movies of all shapes, sizes, and stripes. It’s so many that we can’t, much as the filmmakers might wish us to, take each one purely on its own merits. Each one is compared, favorably or not, against what came before. Iron Man had a much easier job than Thor: Love and Thunder. The DCEU has double the pressure; we compare them not only to the other movies in its own franchise, but against the MCU. The long-gestating Black Adam, the latest such entry, has several things in its favor: A huge global star in Dwayne Johnson and characters audiences haven’t seen on the big screen before. While a lot of the movie works, the whole can’t escape the messiness of trying to add to a franchise rather than tell a good story.
No two ways about it, Black Adam has a tone problem. You notice this from the first few minutes of the movie. We get a historical backstory of a young slave in the fictional country of Kahndaq who fights the tyranny of the evil king and eventually gets the powers of the Shazam wizards. We then cut to modern day Kahndaq where the high-tech mercenary faction Intergang has the country under military occupation. Khandaq has a high quantity of a fancy blue mineral that does some-such.
It’s here we meet Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) who wants to retrieve a crown from ancient times and, during a skirmish with Intergang and a turncoat associate, she awakens Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson), the fabled Champion of Kahndaq. Teth-Adam then obliterates Intergang with enough ruthless efficiency to make the Spanish Inquisition jealous. These first few scenes really make it seem like the movie’s going to go for the usual dark-and-gritty version of anti-heroics. Not so. Well, not entirely.
After Teth-Adam falls in with Adrianna and her brother and son, he destroys some more mercs, this time in the center of the city. This draws the attention of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) who calls in Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) to capture this high-level threat. Hawkman brings in a small battalion of Justice Society members, including his old friend Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and new recruits Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo). Hawkman is very much of the mind that heroes never kill. Since Adam kills people, he must be a villain.
At this point I thought, oh, I was wrong. This is a movie for younger people. Sure the beginning is violent, but the tone now feels a lot more comedic, a lot more focused on youthful exuberance and right over wrong. Given the movie’s ties to Shazam! it makes sense. Adrianna’s son has a very John-Connor-in-Terminator 2 dynamic with Teth-Adam, and Atom Smasher is a goof, so that must be it. And yet that didn’t seem right either.
This is my main issue with Black Adam. It feels like two or three different movies all vying for supremacy. One movie is an occupied country looking for its savior in the form of this fabled mythical hero. Another is an ancient demigod attempting to balance his own inner rage and murderous impulses to find the path toward heroism. And yet another is a Justice Society team-up movie that features fun action and cameos while teaching a broader lesson about how “superheroism” is naïve in the face of real-world evils.
Of those, the movie that works the best for me is the Justice Society one. The dynamic between the members is a lot of fun, and with only four members they each get moments to shine. Hodge’s Hawkman comes to the fore as the second lead of the movie and owns that spot, while Brosnan’s Dr. Fate has by far the best scenes. The problem is, this isn’t a JSA movie, it’s Black Adam. Somehow, and despite having goddamn Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the lead character, Adam is astoundingly one-note. Most of his actual story and character development comes either in flashback or through narration. The scenes of Adam on screen are basically just him looking grim and then punching or shooting lightning at people.
One also can’t ignore how oddly stitched together everything is. The degree to which scenes require characters to deliver ADR’d lines just to tell us what’s going on is staggering. Hardly any scenes, especially early on, are allowed to breathe, and only the JSA members get quieter moments of reflection or self-doubt. This is the problem when you’ve set up your lead character to be all-powerful and all-confident. Adam comes out of the tomb fully formed, able to speak perfect English, and uninterested in learning anything.
That said, if you’re a DC fan who has been excited to see these characters on the big screen engaging in action, you won’t be entirely disappointed. The fight scenes are fast and generally exciting, and it feels—in a mostly good way—like Injustice matches. I also felt like the end of the movie works a lot better than the beginning, despite the usual superhero movie weak-villain problem.
So while it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared—it’s not Morbius by any means—it isn’t a triumph either. Black Adam is a movie that can’t decide on an identity, a point of view, or a message. Is killing good or bad? Are the Justice Society allies or colonizers? Do the people of Kahndaq need a champion or can they do it themselves? The movie never reaches anything like a satisfactory conclusion, but you can bet DC and Warner Bros. hope you won’t notice.