Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam

Black Adam Review: Dwayne Johnson gets a super-anti-hero franchise to call his own

Bringing the intense, furrowed-brow performance style that’s become synonymous with his acting, onetime wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson embodies Black Adam, an old-school, DC Comics superhero near and dear to his three-times-too-large heart. The film is finally arriving in multiplexes around the globe after the better part of a decade in development. For Johnson, Black Adam is a labour of love, but for audiences with little or no connection to an admittedly second- or third-tier DC Comics anti-hero, the response should be far more muted, if not outright indifferent, to the punch-first, plot-and-character-second end result.

The movie opens with an overlong, awkwardly-written prologue voiced by a seemingly over-excitable teen. The prologue functions as a primer for the history of the fictional, Middle-Eastern kingdom of Khandaq. Set 5,000 years ago (in 2600 BC), the offscreen narrator goes into excruciating detail, briefly celebrating the civilizational advances of the fictional kingdom, before turning the narrative into a cautionary tale about kings, power, and corruption. An unelected ruler becomes a brutal tyrant, a young boy attempts to lead a revolution that ultimately fails, and ancient, super-powerful wizards step in to grant the boy the powers of “Shazam.” Chaos ultimately reigns and the rage-filled super being known as Teth-Adam (Johnson in body-hugging black spandex) seemingly wins the battle, frees his people, and then promptly disappears forever.

Except he doesn’t. Entombed by the same wizards who gave him his immeasurable power, Teth-Adam has been biding his time in suspended animation, awaiting the arrival of an acolyte and/or archeologist to free him from his prison. Thanks to the efforts of a Khandaq native, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), hoping to free her perpetually conquered and occupied country from international mercenaries known as Intergang, Black Adam awakens from his millennia-long slumber. For comic book readers, Intergang will be a familiar, if not exactly fearsome, foe. For non comic-book readers, the baddies will look like disposable, forgettable henchmen without a visible leader. They’ll be both right.

In the first of a seemingly endless bludgeoning series of video game cut-scene-quality action scenes directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise, Orphan), Teth-Adam’s arrival in the present leads to mass slaughter. Luckily, Teth-Adam tends to be selective in who he kills (i.e. Intergang) and who he leaves alone (Adrianna and her associates). The PG-13 rating means most of the deaths are bloodless and gore-free, but since CGI is involved, the rating allows practically anything and everything else (e.g. immolation, concussive blasts, throwing Intergang’s members from great heights or long distances).


At least on paper, Black Adam is meant to be an anti-hero, but the audience is expected to root for him, at least until the point where he adjusts his violent impulses for the kindler, gentler present. Given, though, that Intergang doesn’t represent much of a threat to Black Adam, the film introduces a handful of members from the heretofore unmentioned Justice Society, Carter Hall / Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), a mace- and wing-powered superhero, Doctor Fate / Kent Nelson (Pierce Brosnan), a greying, slick-haired magician and seer into the future, Al Rothstein / Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), a size-changing legacy hero with an outsized appetite and 10-15 minutes total screen time, and Maxine Hunkel / Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a weather-controlling superhero who creates multi-hued rainbow effects when she’s in action.

In general, the Justice Society members echo superheroes audiences have seen countless times before via the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or the X-Verse (the now defunct X-Men universe), making their power reveals perfunctory rather than exciting. With barely a line or two of introduction, the four-member Justice Society, a precursor time-wise to the better-known, higher-profiled Justice League, feels like they should have been introduced in another, earlier film. Adding them here feels like both too much and too little. Too much because they take time away from Black Adam and his journey, and too little because of their rushed, superficial intros.

It doesn’t help too that Black Adam exhaustingly devolves into a series of super-powered punch-ups that turn numbing with repetition. A stop-start-stop third act, complete with a false ending twenty minutes before the end credits roll, doesn’t help things. Even worse, the attempt to explore Black Adam as a rigid, inflexible anti-hero with a preference for killing over negotiation tends to go around in concentric circles. Then again, he’s almost justified in responding with force when the Justice Society, an international organization supposedly devoted to maintaining world peace and/or global stability, shows up unannounced, demanding his unconditional surrender or fighting it out. Unsurprisingly, Black Adam chooses the latter.

Not surprisingly, Johnson makes for a formidable, striking presence as the title character. His hyper-trophied physique perfectly fits this particular depiction of the fight-first, think-last anti-hero. He even delivers a handful of lines in support of Black Adam’s murder spree in convincing fashion, but presence and commitment alone aren’t enough when the script feels like it’s been cobbled together from four or five different drafts. Then there’s the fact that Black Adam seemingly exists to keep visual effects companies busy or to set-up the inevitable next entry.


Black Adam opens theatrically on Friday, October 21.