Here’s the most important thing I can tell you about Warner Home Entertainment’s 4K release of Black Adam: It’s gorgeous. Play it on a massive screen, turn the sound up and let the noise and motion overwhelm you; it’s always a pleasure to see Jaume Collett-Serra given a proper budget, and he puts every dollar on screen – just as he did last year with Jungle Cruise, come to think of it. I am happy the director of films as giddy and high-concepty as Orphan, Non-Stop, The Commuter and even The Shallows is getting paid to make big studio movies. I just wish I enjoyed them more.
Because despite the efforts of a whole mess of very talented people, Black Adam isn’t very good; it’s an overstuffed superhero blowout that feels like it was run through far more writers than the three who are credited in a doomed attempt to find a shape that can contain its ambitious goals. Dwayne Johnson has been supposedly trying to make this picture since Man of Steel was but a twinkle in Zack Snyder’s eye, with the intention of taking a little-known DC character and making him his own. He does do that, I guess, but at the cost of turning off his own immense charm and charisma to play a heavy; for all the smashing and zooming and triumphing, I think this is the least interesting Dwayne Johnson has ever been in a movie, and I’ve seen Doom.
If you’re not familiar with the history of Teth-Adam, here’s the deal: Five thousand or so years ago, in Egypt, a lowly slave was granted the power of the gods to take on a corrupt ruler – but it turns out the whole absolute-power thing was just as true then as it is now, and Teth-Adam became Black Adam, a merciless ruler in his own right. Imprisoned by his creators, he would eventually break loose in the present day to bedevil Captain Marvel (the DC one, not the Marvel one; nowadays he goes by Shazam) with power unchecked by morality and kindness.
That … isn’t what happens here, exactly. The key points are checked – a slave, a pharaoh, the gods, the imprisonment – but the mythology has been tweaked in such a way that lets Johnson’s Adam arrive in the nation of Kahndaq as an avenger (again, the DC kind rather than the Marvel kind) rather than a conqueror. He’s awakened by archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi, who is reliably the best thing in every project she makes) who was in his tomb searching for the Crown of Sabbac, a relic said to contain unimaginable power; she was set up by the high-tech crime syndicate called Intergang, which is occupying Kahndaq in order to give Adam a host of generic mercenaries he can kill without losing our sympathy, I guess. Are you still with me? This is just the first half-hour.
So Adam murders a whole bunch of Intergang soldiers (Intergangsters?) in an elaborate action set piece, and Johnson makes it clear that he is having no fun at all: Adam is a clenched renderer of swift justice to all who offend him, and he’s super-fast and super-brutal and can eat a tank or whatever. But he spares Adrianna and her wounded brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), and eventually befriends Adrianna’s teen son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who is crazy about super-heroes and is more than happy to make Adam his project, instructing him in the ways of do-goodery and cool catchphrases.
It’s basically the Schwarzenegger-Furlong dynamic of Terminator 2 stapled onto what’s effectively a kaiju movie, where a bunch of puny humans awaken a wrathful beast and spend the rest of the movie running around trying to find the enchanted whistle or whatever that will stop its rampage. And despite the obvious connections to Shazam! – in the comics, Black Adam was the erstwhile Captain Marvel’s opposite number, sworn to use his own gods-given powers for evil – Billy Batson and his alter ego are nowhere to be seen, another sign this project was developed with no regard to any other DC continuity. And no, I’m not arguing all of them need to be interconnected on the near-OCD level of Disney’s ongoing Marvel project – it’d be fine to have stand-alone adventures! – but the lack of attention to that aspect is something that undermines all of Warner’s DC movies, since they always wind up forced to acknowledge the other films somehow, and it almost always feels shoehorned in.
Anyway, Djimon Hounsou turns up here as a certain all-powerful wizard, so Adam and the big red cheese definitely exist in the same universe; so does Suicide Squad(s) veteran Amanda Waller, once again played by Viola Davis with an efficiency and joylessness that makes me annoyed she’s always on the sidelines of these movies. (Amanda Waller would absolutely pick up a rail gun or a flamethrower and charge into battle if cornered, and it’s a pity no one lets her.) But despite all existing characters, for some reason Black Adam requires an entirely new league of heroes to fly in and battle its eponymous antihero: The Justice Society, which in the comics continuity I grew up with was an association of Golden Age good guys that claimed the ’40s versions of Green Lantern and the Flash as members, but now exists in the present day as a sort of extra-national police force, zipping around the globe to solve problems ordinary mortals cannot. It seems weird that they’d let Intergang take over an entire nation, but I guess they were dealing with something else that day.
But raging demigods are their jam, it seems, and so Waller taps the Society – consisting of Thanagarian brawler Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), supreme sorcerer Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), wind-wizard Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and grow-guy Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) – to go in and deal with Adam. They show up, he cleans their collective clocks in another pretty fun action sequence, and everyone regroups to figure out their next movie. And eventually, because this is a team-up picture, all the heroes realize they’re fighting for the same thing and unite against Intergang, turning Black Adam from a Godzilla, King of the Monsters situation to a more of a Kong Vs Godzilla deal.
It's a lot, is what I’m saying, and it’s just not much fun – especially once the third act requires the omnipotent Adam to be sidelined with one fairly clever revelation and one extremely far-fetched nullification plan while the Justice Society tries to figure out a finishing move against the movie’s actual villain, Marwan Kenzari’s scheming Interganglord Ishmael. (Turns out he has a special connection to the Crown of Sabbac, and if you don’t know where this is all going you are a pure and blessed soul.)
Can I complain about Intergang for a second? Say what you will about the generic goon squads of previous superhero movies, but they tended to have a leadership structure; Intergang is just a Central Casting sampler box of burly white dudes – which is as close as the film is willing to come to anything like a commentary on colonialism or European oppression. Also, it makes no sense that a criminal organization would be allowed to take over an entire freaking country in a world where Superman exists, let alone multiple superhero clubs, but I assume that plot point was left over from a draft where the DC films didn’t share a universe.
And it kinda doesn’t matter, because this entire movie exists solely to introduce Johnson’s Adam as a reluctant hero, a super-powered brooder who isn’t interested in ruling the world but also doesn’t care too much about anyone he doesn’t personally know. (Like I said, it’s basically a Godzilla movie.) The movie ends with the Justice Society leaving him in a newly liberated Kahndaq, and – as you may have heard – Henry Cavill’s Superman arriving to acknowledge the new balance of power in the DC universe, like a gentleman.
Superman also turned up at the end of Shazam!, if you recall, and once again his post-credits appearance just leaves us wondering why the established hero didn’t turn up earlier in the picture, when he might have been able to lend a hand. (Imagine a third act where Superman does turn up, discovers he’s vulnerable to magic and has to figure out a non-confrontational way to persuade Adam that the mortals Adam sees as insects or pets are worth protecting.)
Anyway, like I said, none of this matters. The appointment of James Gunn and Peter Safran as the new creative leads at DC Studios was followed by the announcement that a number of projects being cancelled – and, shortly after that, the news that neither Cavill nor Johnson would be returning to their characters. It’s a decisive end to the narrative cycle that began with Man of Steel and will now conclude this year with Shazam sequel and that long-delayed Flash movie, which maybe resets the timeline for a fresh start or just ends on the promise of some other crossover that will never come to pass. I don’t know, and I honestly can’t say I’m terribly bothered either way; I’ve spent a decade hoping the next DC thing will finally figure it all out, and so far only Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and his glorious Peacemaker spinoff series have made me feel like someone gets it. Maybe Gunn can find a way forward that works for all of these characters. Maybe he’ll even let Viola Davis pick up that flamethrower. That’d be something.
In the meantime, we have the Black Adam home edition, which eerily continues to insist that there will be many more adventures for Johnson’s surly demigod. (Seriously, I cannot comprehend why both he and Collet-Serra would come off the light-hearted pleasures of Jungle Cruise and decide to yoke themselves to a concept that denies even the possibility of fun.) Obviously the supplements were produced before the regime change, and everyone’s required to be positive and upbeat when shooting the EPK stuff, but the whole thing has a none-too-subtle Groundhog Day feeling, insisting this DC movie is the one that breaks the mold and sets the franchise in a new direction – which we’ve heard on every picture since Justice League, and which also points to the rudderless nature of the overall project. And when you pack that sentiment into ten featurettes comprising over an hour of promotional material, it starts to feel a little panicked.
It's not all empty calories, mind you. The History of Black Adam and Who is the Justice Society? are decent explainers (hosted by Shahi and Hodge, respectively) that lay out the paths of the various characters over decades of comics, and I also appreciated Costumes Make the Hero, which focuses on the practical aspects of designing certain super-suits. But the rest are pretty generic, with cast and crew saying encouraging things amongst dynamic clips and peppy musical stings. Everyone here has done fine work in other things, and it’s nice to glimpse them out of character, but once you see the movie you can’t help but wonder what they were thinking.
I really like Noah Centineo – he’s having a blast in The Recruit over on Netflix – but his whole li’l-Mark-Ruffalo deal is entirely out of place here; yes, he has some puppydog energy opposite Swindell’s Cyclone, but the movie doesn’t give either of them anything to do but look nervous and unprepared while Hodge and Brosnan stalk around exchanging glum prophecies of doom. Shahi’s a ray of light, but she’s stuck playing a moral scold and/or a worried mom; the film’s T2 lift may require Amon to be the story’s John Connor, but Adrianna definitely does not get to be Sarah.
I’ve clearly thought too much about Black Adam for anyone’s mental health – I mean, I did write NOW’s Superhero Nonsense column for a couple of years – but hopefully you’ve got some sense of the weight this movie is carrying. At least now everyone involved can lay their burdens down, and we have a truly lovely audiovisual record of their effort that will still be on our shelves after the film’s inevitable disappearance from HBO Max. That’s good, right?
In Sunday’s paid edition: I indulge my OCD further with some thoughts on the awards-race shift from discs to streaming. It’s as inside-baseball as they come! Upgrade your subscription so you don’t miss a single overconsidered argument!