When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. Forgive me for eliciting Corinthians as an opening to discuss Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam, now in theaters.
Yes, the quote could be attributable to this critic as much as the titular character, Black Adam, in this, the latest film in the DC Extended Universe.
The suggestion is not that we put away childish things as an adult. Genre films are as old as cinema itself, and movies based on comic books are here to stay. The suggestion is that events shape our lives, forcing us to make decisions to actively put away childish things, to think of others, and to be responsible for our actions.
Dwayne Johnson, who plays the story’s lead, has lobbied Warner Bros. for this film for 16 years. The love fans have for their chosen franchises ring loud and clear in box office receipts year after year. To show that I’m not utterly abject toward genre films as an adult, director Nicholas Meyer was once quoted when referring to an objection over a studio change to a more hopeful ending on one of his films, stating, “where all that popcorn is at stake.”
Now, more than ever, that popcorn is at stake. Audiences are more comfortable waiting for films to hit their favorite home streaming service, forsaking the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen with fantastic sound. Black Adam gives the audience bang for their inflated buck.
Why, then, does Black Adam ring so hollow?
While it is entertaining, Black Adam is, to be blunt, a mess. The story, written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, is self-aware enough to know that it exists in a bubble but does not challenge that bubble. The performances, notably Johnson, Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate and Sarah Shahi as Adrianna Tomas, are just endearing enough to make you notice what this film could have done had it not been edited to an inch within its life. The action and colorful special effects are just quaint enough, and the comedy is just obliviously sufficient to justify its existence as a modern genre popcorn flick.
This is not enough, though.
Intended as a character origin story, Black Adam struggles to find its footing as such and has even less success as a “team” exercise. Johnson has charisma bottled up and ready to sell. There are moments in the film that allow the actor to capitalize on his comedic timing and sense of self as Black Adam is awakened after a 5000-year slumber to a world he does not know and without purpose. The character has less emotional center than other anti-heroes in the shared DCEU. Instead, it focuses on the Justice Society of America: Aldis Hodges’ Hawkman, Noah Centino’s Atom Smasher, Quintessa Swindell’s Cyclone, and Brosnan’s Doctor Fate, who is sent to tuck Black Adam back into his long slumber, realizing that his powers could destroy the world. Centino and Swindell feel out of place, taking a cue from Deadpool 2.
Instead, their work wreaks havoc on Kahndaq and its people.
The city of Kahndaq has been under an oppressive, tyrannical rule for a very long time, first under King Anh-Kot and, in modern times, by Intergang. The story isn’t concerned with why these oppressive regimes exist, other than as a catalyst for action in Adrianna and her son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui). Kahndaqui citizens struggle for and need a symbol of that freedom in the past and present. Politically, Black Adam rings true of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The story has a villain, but the character is so dull and obvious as to render Black Adam lifeless.
If there is one bright spot to Black Adam, it fits the Corinthians’ quote earlier in the review: the connection between parent and child and the sacrifices made to ensure their future. This connection is what allows Johnson to shine.
If a genre popcorn flick is your cup of tea, sit back and enjoy the ride. Black Adam goes to lengths to represent that particular badge and misses by a mile with a lack of emotional center that these films usually delivers in spades. Johnson is the right actor for the character; there’s no denying that. Certain characters and moments lend a measure of gravitas. However, ethos and pathos drop to the earth like Atom Smasher and Cyclone’s first drop off the JSA’s jump ramp and land with an even louder thud.
And I don’t care what universe you’re from. That’s gotta hurt!
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, based on Characters from DC
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Satah Shahi, Marian Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan
PG-13, 124 minutes, New Line Cinema/DC/Warner Bros.