Black Adam Review: Not Even Dwayne Johnson Can Save DC

Dwayne Johnson’s long-developing turn as Black Adam finally arrives on the screen at a delicate time for the DC film universe. He will not save them.

Dwayne Johnson in Black Adam Review
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Black Adam is not the first character that comes to mind when thinking of who could headline a DC movie. Starting out as one of DC Comics’ best villains, primarily in conflict with Captain Marvel/Shazam, the ancient Egyptian super-being has since transformed himself into a more morally ambivalent character and ally to some of DC’s traditional heroes. But as the lead of his own film?

For reasons known only to him, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has seen the character (also known as Teth-Adam) as the comic book creation he was born to play, and after more than a decade of development, here we are. But Black Adam the movie, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) and also starring Aldis Hodge, Pierce Brosnan, Noah Centineo, and Sarah Shahi, comes during a transitional time for the DC Extended Universe or whatever it’s being called these days.

The Snyderverse is shut down (supposedly), the Justice League is in limbo, and the exec who’s been quietly in charge of DC movies, Walter Hamada, has just exited the building. There are movies in production and films waiting on the release launchpad while Johnson himself has suggested that Black Adam might lead DC in a new direction (with him helpfully acting as an adviser of some sort).

But based on the Black Adam movie itself, we don’t think that’s the case. The new film is almost a throwback to a simpler, dumber kind of superhero movie. It follows a series of rather thin, standard narrative beats, but it doesn’t offer any chance to get to know the many characters it introduces. Instead the spectacle speeds rapidly from CG-heavy action scene to CG-heavy action scene while barely catching its breath. It simultaneously asks a lot of the audience and very little, with the end result being a rather forgettable concoction that only points out how directionless the DCEU seems to be at this stage.

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When the movie begins, we meet Teth-Adam as a slave 5,000 years ago, with his native land of Kahndaq under the tyrannical rule of King Anh-Kot. The brutal ruler has his slaves digging for “Eternium” (which may or may not bear similarities to James Cameron’s “Unobtanium”) from which he can fashion the Crown of Sabbac, which will give whoever wears it limitless power.

Teth-Adam ends the king’s reign—just as the latter is putting down a brutal revolution—by receiving the power of the Seven Wizards. This is activated by saying the word “Shazam” and turning into a nearly invincible, massively powered being who lays waste to everything around him. Soon he is imprisoned again, this time by the wizards who realize he may not be worthy of their power after all.

Cut to modern-day Kahndaq where archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Shahi), her brother, and an associate are trying to track down the Crown and use it to free Kahndaq from the rule of the vicious criminal organization Intergang. Just as they discover its resting place, they are attacked by enemy soldiers, but Adrianna recites the inscription on the crown which awakens Teth-Adam, who bursts out of his tomb and once again begins destroying everything in sight—while sparing Adrianna and her young son.

His activity draws the attention of Task Force X and government super-being watchdog Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who dispatches the Justice Society—Hawkman (Hodge), Doctor Fate (Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell)—to deal with this new menace, even as Adrianna and her son desperately try to convince Adam that he can once again be the hero that Kahndaq has long waited for.

We mentioned earlier that the Snyderverse is no more, but we’re pretty damn sure that Zack Snyder secretly directed this movie anyway. It has so many of his trademarks: the desaturated, dull gray-and-brown color palette; countless ominous shots of cloud-roiled skies; heroes filmed to look like gods or at least statues of deities; and endless scenes filmed in slow-motion (or sometimes speeded-up slow-motion), with every single movement carrying a ponderous, portentous weight that really isn’t there.

It’s also super self-serious, which doesn’t play to Johnson’s strengths as an easygoing, rather jocular performer. He’s got the physical presence as always, but even as Teth-Adam slightly loosens up throughout the course of the picture it still sounds like he’s even saying his few one-liners through gritted teeth. Played like a grimdark cross between the T-800 of Terminator 2 and the MCU’s Drax the Destroyer, he’s just big, but he feels hollow, even when his tragic secret is revealed two-thirds of the way through the movie.

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There’s little tragedy involved in it because it kind of comes out of nowhere, and because we really never develop any empathy with Teth-Adam himself, a problem that afflicts every other character in the picture. Adrianna, her son, and their fellow adventurers are just the normal put-on-the-board chess pieces who are intended to give us a keyhole into all this craziness. It’s perfunctory yet still better than the Justice Society, who actually predate the Justice League in DC canon. By contrast, this fabled organization is just thrown into the mix with barely a handshake.

Hodge and Brosnan are quite good in their roles (the best things about the movie, really), but the younger members are more annoying than not, and we don’t get any sense of who this team is. There’s an argument to be made about introducing superhero characters without delving into tiresome origin stories, but it doesn’t work here (even with pretty awesome costumes). We need some kind of entry into the history of these characters and their legendary team, but they may as well be some benchwarmers from the Suicide Squad to viewers who aren’t DC diehards. When one particular friendship is tested by a sacrificial gesture, what would probably be a heavily emotional moment in an Avengers movie just comes across as manipulative here.

On the plus side, there are a few nice moments between Adam and Adrianna’s son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), Hodge and Brosnan sparkle whenever they’re onscreen (so why not a movie about them?), and a few moments of exhilarating action shine through the blender-style editing and murky CG overkill.

But between the introduction of Teth-Adam and the Justice Society, some weak moralizing about whether killing is good or bad, a regretfully unexplored nod toward modern imperialism, plus the third-act entry of a woefully undercooked big bad, Black Adam seems like a hodgepodge of spare parts from other films rather than the game-changer Johnson has hyped. Even that mid-credits scene you’ve surely heard about by now seems more like a threat than a promise.

Black Adam opens in theaters on Friday, Oct. 21.


2.5 out of 5