DC Films’ latest release into the endless superhero pantheon, “Black Adam,” has a lot riding on Dwayne Johnson’s muscled shoulders. Despite a few banner films, Hollywood box office sales are still down over 20% from 2019; this is also the studio's first major superhero release since the megamerger of Warner Bros. Discovery.
“Black Adam” is far too slight a movie to support either Hollywood's or Warner Bros. Pictures' hopes.
Unfortunately, “Black Adam” is far too slight a movie to support either Hollywood's or Warner Bros. Pictures' hopes. A wooden, emotionless CGI fest, this is a startlingly dull paint-by-numbers story that embodies everything wrong with superhero films.
The problem begins at conception. The character of Black Adam was conceived as the villain of another long-gestating DC film, “Shazam!” That 2019 surprise box office hit took the superhero origin story of its titular character, a 14-year-old kid who accidentally gets chosen by an ancient wizard to fight evil, and played it for laughs. Whenever the kid says the magic word, he morphs into a fully grown adult superhero (played by Zachary Levi), but inside he’s still an immature kid; think “Big,” but in spandex with capes. Black Adam, one of the regularly scheduled villains in the comic book, was supposed to be his main antagonist.
Somewhere in the process, perhaps by Johnson’s doing or DC trying for another cinematic universe, “Black Adam” was removed from the film and given his own origin story film, with plans for him to eventually face off with Shazam in a later installment. On paper, this is not the worst idea. Former WWE star Johnson is extraordinarily bankable. He’s anchored and opened major hits like “Hobbs & Shaw” and “Jungle Cruise,” and turned films like “Red Notice” into major Netflix properties. He even has a hit broadcast show, “Young Rock” — no small feat — which fictionalizes his own life. The only thing missing from his portfolio was a stand-alone superhero franchise.
But “Black Adam” is not a superhero. He is an antihero — at best. And while “Black Panther” did a great job of making its bad guy both a certifiable badass and a nuanced character, “Black Adam” fails miserably. Perhaps it’s the script, which is filled with cringeworthy, cliched dialogue. Or maybe it’s the filmmakers, who felt the need to spell out every plot development using didactic monologues and action scenes that border on poverty porn. Johnson is typically a charismatic presence on screen, but here he comes across like a cardboard cutout — a derivative, charmless, knockoff Terminator in spandex.
The film was doomed even before the substitute “heroes” show up. Members of the “Justice Society” — played by Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Quintessa Swindell and Pierce Brosnan — these wannabes feel like abandoned drafts from last year’s “The Suicide Squad”; part of James Gunn’s reject pile for not being crass or funny enough.
But the movie's worst crime is not just wasting Johnson’s and Brosnan’s talents, or its overly long and directionless battles, which seem to exist purely to show Black Adam winning. (And he does win, because it’s his movie.) No, the movie's biggest failure is the way it hands more ammunition to those who complain bitterly about the box office being dominated by endless men in tights. The film presupposes its audience’s attention span cannot handle complexity, and thus must have its characters repeatedly spew their emotional motivations for fear we might have forgotten them. Instead of giving fans characters to invest in, it fills the time with CGI “superpowers” that aren’t even all that interesting to watch. The shots are pedestrian, repetitive and not at all enhanced by a large screen. The “wisecracks” feel cribbed from other, better films; the twists are telegraphed from the first frame.
But the movie's worst crime is not just wasting Johnson’s and Brosnan’s talents, or its overly long and directionless battles.
The film is also terrified to lets its story actually say anything. It only commits to things everyone can agree on, for fear of accidentally offending someone, somewhere. “Black Adam” has an interesting inkling of an idea: an oppressed culture that needs to overthrow the invading white men. But it is far too scared to follow through on the premise with any ideological heft. The designated bad guy is a dude who turns into a demon and raises a skeleton army. Everyone can agree on banning together to fight a dude with demon horns, rendering any actual political differences moot. Instead of overthrowing oppressors, the nameless extras are shown rioting against Halloween figures. Even Black Adam himself seemingly has no beliefs other than “saving a kid is good.”
This bland, mindless superhero flick will do little to help an already struggling DC Films division. Controversial decisions and executive turnover have done little to restore confidence in Warner Bros., with critics worrying that Discovery’s David Zaslav, who now runs the merged corporation, could be eliminating programs designed to make the company and its offerings more diverse.
Warner has already tried to make DC Films an imitation of Disney-backed rival Marvel and its vast cinematic universe crossover; the box office numbers for “Justice League” speak to just how badly that went. But the midcredit sequence in “Black Adam” unfortunately suggests studio leaders are committed to making the same mistakes all over again. Warner’s marketing of the film has positioned “Black Adam” as a turning point in the DC Universe. If this is indeed true, then it’s turning in the wrong direction.