A funny thing happened to Black Adam on its way to the cinema: critics finally got a look at the movie. While the film has undeniably been a passion project for Dwayne Johnson, with the actor circling the role for more than a decade before finally playing the part, that love has not necessarily translated into a movie that’s winning over a majority of film journalists.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that this is only the early reception for the DC Extended Universe’s most hotly anticipated film of the year, and that Black Adam’s current Rotten Tomatoes score of 52 percent (as of press time) is based on just 54 submitted reviews. Even so, there tends to be quite a bit of praise for Johnson… and plenty of criticism about most other elements in the film.
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, for one, takes Black Adam to task for leaning into what many consider the worst tendencies of the modern superhero genre.
“There isn’t a single character here that doesn’t feel like a cheap photocopy of one from Gotham or the MCU,” Ehrlich wrote, “not a single beat that doesn’t feel like it hasn’t been audience-tested within an inch of its life, not a single fight scene that isn’t smothered to death by the DCEU’s signature CGI gloop. ‘The superhero-industrial complex is worth a lot of money,’ a character whose name I’ve already forgotten observes at one point, and “Black Adam” becomes a part of that business with all the fun and enthusiasm of a hedge fund buying $200 million worth of blue chip stocks.”
Mike Ryan of Uproxx, meanwhile, seemed genuinely confounded at what he considered to be a substandard effort to utilize Johnson’s natural charisma.
“For the life of me I will never understand why anyone would make a superhero movie with, perhaps, the most charismatic action star working today and decide, hey, what if we took away all that charisma?” Ryan wrote at the beginning of his review. “It’s truly baffling. And, look, if you want to make an argument, well, historically, the character of Black Adam is stoic and isn’t going to be delivering nonstop one-liners, well, I would counter that once Dwayne Johnson is cast as the lead – something he himself really pushed for – then there has to be a little leeway to reinvent a character that most people don’t know a lot about anyway.”
Conversely, CNN’s Brian Lowry seemed disappointed at how the film introduced the Justice Society of America, the alleged launchpad of the next era of DCEU entertainment.
Wrote Lowry, “But like the pre-‘Snyder cut’ version of ‘Justice League,’ in its haste to replicate Marvel’s cinematic might, DC basically attempts to get away with skipping a few steps, just throwing the Justice Society out there without fanfare or a dedicated introduction – a less promotable prospect than a film starring Johnson, perhaps, but a contributing factor to the awkwardness of this exercise.”
Despite many of the harsher notices, not all of the early reviews are doom and gloom. Some, in fact, embrace the movie for what it appears to be going for.
Empire’s Helen O’Hara wrote, “With Black Adam, Dwayne Johnson and director Jaume Collet-Serra attempt to offer a grand unified theory of DC, mixing family-film tropes with a protagonist who straight-up murders people. The result is something of a mess, but it’s a generally entertaining one.”
And Courtney Howard of freshfiction.tv praised the Rock’s charismatic ability to elevate the movie.
Wrote Howard, “With BLACK ADAM, director Jaume Collet-Serra has crafted a solidly entertaining B-movie with smarts and skill. Not only does he adeptly layer in cinematic references with a wink and a smile, he delivers lively, large scale action sequences that act as stepping stones to a grander universe. The film also houses an absolutely terrific performance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, allowing him to flex his trademark muscular showmanship and combine that with character-driven appeal… the filmmakers have found a satiating balance of serious and silly (which is never a bad thing in this genre).”
Princess Weekes of The Mary Sue also outright signals that whatever faults the movie has, Johnson’s performance and aspirations for the character are not among them.
“There is no denying that he brings the kind of star power magnetism to the position you hire a big star for,” Weekes wrote. “No fault in the movie is his. He gets it 1000%, and as someone who has been following him since the WWF era, it is an excellent solidifying of a legacy of performance, charisma, and badassery. Dwayne Johnson is one of our most incredible action stars, and that is fully captured in Black Adam.”
Scott Mendelson of Forbes even is pleasantly reminded of the early days of the MCU by Black Adam, writing, “Black Adam is a joyfully over-the-top action fantasy tentpole. It has the pulpy and no-pressure pleasures of a New Line flick, even as it comes armed with a WB-level budget. Like Doctor Strange 2, it reminded me of the early MCU movies (Iron Man, Thor, etc.) from before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was anything other than a single ambitious Hollywood franchise amid other Hollywood franchises and non-IP blockbusters.”
The movie has divided the first round of critical notices right down the middle. While the amount of credit or blame of the movie is being debated, it would seem that praise for Johnson, and ambiguity about what this movie means for the DCEU’s vaunted pivot toward a “new hierarchy,” is fairly widespread.
Black Adam arrives in theaters on Friday, Oct. 21. We are saving our review for closer to release.