"Black Adam" somehow makes Dwayne Johnson (and speed-ramping) boring

Black Adam (2022)

Dwayne Johnson has somehow gotten away without playing a legitimate superhero until now. He’s built like a brick shithouse, but charisma is also his superpower. So on paper, it makes complete sense to cast this formidable, impossibly charismatic star with a good sense of humor as the titular Black Adam. The latest stepping stone in the DC Extended Universe, “Black Adam” is cut from a similar cape, in some ways, as Peter Berg’s “Hancock,” as in both superheroes could care less about saving people. But while that film was less conventional and more fun to watch, the most impressive feat “Black Adam” manages is making its own anti-hero—and Dwayne Johnson—boring. 

In an opening exposition dump where the narrator clearly needed a glass of water by the end, the film goes back to 2600 BCE in a sepia-toned Middle Eastern nation called Kahndaq. Its people were enslaved by a power-hungry king to mine a stone called Eternium, so he could gain demonic powers. A council of good wizards (including Shazam, as in “Shazam!”) then found a young champion to defeat the king. 5,000 years later in present-day Kahndaq, freedom-fighting archeologist Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) journeys to a cave in order to find the Crown of Sabbac made of said Eternium. She finds the crown, but with an incantation, she also awakens former champion turned God known as Black Adam/Teth Adam (Dwayne Johnson), who can use his strength and electrical powers to kill. Meanwhile, Amanda Waller—yes, that one, played again by Viola Davis—deems Adam to be a threat and calls in the Justice Society of America (JSA) to detain him. If you don’t know the JSA, well, be prepared to feel alone.

In what should be a thrilling introduction to Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s anti-hero, “Black Adam” is far less cohesive and just overstuffed with tediously fussy exposition and characters that barely get their due. The first order of business is Black Adam himself. It’s crucial that we understand what the big guy stands for and cares about, and perhaps he will figure that out more by the next movie. However, none of those seeds for the future help us in caring much about anything screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani have set up for this invincible cipher who likes to kill and eventually learns to quip. Having brought such verve to past popcorn pictures—“House of Wax,” “Orphan,” “The Shallows,” the slew of Liam Neeson Season actioners, and even last year's "Jungle Cruise" with Johnson—director Jaume Collet-Serra seems to get swallowed up in a very numbing aesthetic. Collet-Sera has apparently just caught up with the art of speed-ramping, using it so often that Zack Snyder’s use of it is comparatively sparing. The action set-pieces aren't very distinct, just cacophonous without being exhilarating, and action-packed does not a good movie make. 

Dwayne Johnson is never less than dedicated to bringing this less-familiar character to the screen. He’s laconic and stolid with his deadpan comic timing still on point, but if you ever wanted to see Johnson as a super-serious anti-hero, be careful what you wish for. Being unable to speak on how faithful the writers and Johnson’s performance get the character right from the comics (which I have clearly not read as my pre-req), it’s more of a drag to have Johnson’s personality be tamped down. One running bit with Adam not understanding sarcasm and not having a superhero catchphrase is amusing, but it would be more inspired had we not just seen “Thor: Love and Thunder.” 

Luckily, there’s more charm with the supporting players. Adrianna’s electrician brother Karim, played by an endearing Mohammed Amer, always gets at least a chuckle, and Bodhi Sabongui will play well to the teenage fanboys as Adrianna’s superhero-obsessed son Amon. Then there are the Justice Society members. Not every new character needs an entire movie to tell their origin story, but in introducing the JSA for the first time on screen, they feel haphazardly thrown in before giving us any real reason to care about them or their mission. There’s Hawkman/Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge), Dr. Fate/Kent Nelson (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone/Maxine Hunkel (Quintessa Swindell), and Atom Smasher/Al Rothstein (Noah Centineo). Who are these people? Well, they get names and quick lines concerning their backstories and powers. Every actor is appealing here, but their interactions are so few that it all feels like a tease. Brosnan classes things up as Dr. Fate, and he and Hodge’s Hawkman efficiently create a history together that strives for pathos and almost gets there. Swindell and Centineo also have the cute beginnings of a romance as Cyclone and Atom Smasher. 

“Black Adam” is a big, silly, quippy thing that only occasionally remembers to be a little fun and never really taps into the supposed allure of this character. Devolving into a confounding pile-up of climaxes—the Baddie eventually turns into Darkness from Ridley Scott’s “Legend”—the movie makes us wonder how we got here and if it will ever actually end. By the time our eyes have glazed over the bombastic pyrotechnics, so much ugly and empty CGI, and the tiresome speed-ramping, “Justice League” (the theatrical cut, not the Snyder Cut) doesn’t look so bad after all. This is the kind of joyless experience that superhero detractors think every superhero movie ends up being. Usually, they’re wrong, but not here.

Grade: C -

Warner Bros. Pictures is releasing “Black Adam” (124 min.) in theaters on October 21, 2022.