Dizzying action, dazzling visual effects and Dwayne Johnson, supported by a cast of lively co-actors, lend Black Adam – the first feature devoted to the DC Comics anti-hero – pace and power. The film’s dynamism is, however, strictly superficial.
The long-gestating action adventure certainly isn’t greater than the sum of its parts? The parts that work, especially Johnson’s immense star power, do the heavy lifting. The genre tropes, wrapped and delivered in shimmering packets, do not quite pull their weight.
The focus of Black Adam is expectedly on the titular character and the star who embodies him on screen – both undeniably mighty. The story takes a bit of a back seat in the process without being knocked completely out of the reckoning.
The spin-off from 2019’s Shazam wastes no time to jump into a prelude that spells out how Adam Teth, a hero, a champion, a legend, became Black Adam. The film gallops at a steady clip from there on. That makes the Black Adam markedly tauter than most superhero flicks.
It never loses momentum. If anything, there are times in the film when one feels that it might have done well to slow down just a tad. It delivers information at breakneck speed, which tends to overpower the surface inducements of a well-mounted movie with its share of highs.
The trimmed length – Black Adam, written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, is a compact, two-hour affair – is one of its biggest strengths. The non-stop flow of set pieces, while seeming pretty familiar, does not outlive its welcome.
Dwayne Johnson, acutely aware that he is the prime draw and steps up to the plate with ease. However, try as hard as he may he is unable to paper over the superhero movie cliches that the character has to deal with as he fights his own wrath and the aggressive scepticism of the superheroes of the Justice Society deployed who confront him.
The actors who play the JSA members, especially Aldis Hodge and Quintessa Swindell, have their moments. As do Sarah Shahi and Bodhi Sabongui, cast as a mother and son duo. Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate, too, makes his presence felt. But Black Adam is Dwayne Johnson’s film all the way. There is a nary moment that suggests otherwise.
The struggle of a tormented but invincible protagonist who walks a thin line between heroism and villainy is the principal conflict point in a spectacular tentpole production that, while it serves up all that it is supposed to, manages to articulate an anti-imperialist stance, advocating the cause of colonised people who have been exploited and robbed over eons of their resources.
But does Black Adam pave the way forward for a new DCEU franchise that seeks to deliver megahits in the years ahead? It looks and feels strong enough as a film that is meant to start a new era. The fate of the movies that lie in the near future will rest squarely on what Warner-DC can bring to the mix. That would have to be significantly more than what Black Adam delivers.
Black Adam, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra in a manner that obviates any possibility of the superhero flick playbook being recast in a new mould, begins with an introductory flashback that takes the audience to 2600 BCE and the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq, once “a centre of power and enlightenment” that is now ruled by a brutal despot, King Ahn-Tok.
The enslaved Kahndaqi population works in the mines to extract a magical mineral, eternium, from which the nation’s ruler derives unimaginable powers. A slave boy rises from among them and stands up to the King. He slays the tyrant and becomes a demi-god to his people.
Adam Teth is granted the gift of invincibility by the Council of Wizards. But because he, driven by uncontrollable rage, uses his godlike powers for the purpose of wreaking vengeance, he is banished from the land and imprisoned. The persona of Black Adam is born.
The film jumps 5,000 years forward and, using the voiceover of a young present-day Kahndaqi boy, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who believes a hero will arrive one day to liberate a people under foreign military occupation for 27 years, informs the audience that the misfortunes of the nation has never ceased.
Amon’s mother, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), a resistance fighter and university professor with great knowledge of archaeological remnants, accidentally summons the long-dormant Black Adam. He proceeds to wipe out several armed men of the Intergang, the international mercenaries in control of the Kahndaq, as they try to close in on the Crown of Sabbac. Adrianna stands between the mercenaries and the prized artifact.
The return of Black Adam provokes Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to send the Justice Society’s Carter Hall/Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Kent Nelson/Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Albert Rothstein/Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Maxine Hunkel/Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) to Kahndaq to rein in the rampaging Adam.
Once the quartet lands in Kahndaq, Black Adam moves into top gear and unleashes a veritable torrent of twists and turns. Troubles multiply for Adrianna and her son – the boy who wants his people to be saved finds himself in need of a rescue act when inimical forces kidnap him to force his mother’s hand.
The duo, with Adrianna’s electrician-brother Karim (Mohammed Amir) chipping in at crucial junctures, seeks to prevent the Crown of Sabbac from falling into the wrong hands. Hawkman tries to stop Black Adam from continuing down the path of dispensing his brand of instant and destructive justice. A descendant of King Ahn-Tok surfaces to lay claim to the priceless crown that everybody wants.
Caught between the two, Doctor Fate, who has the power to see what lies ahead, exhorts Hawkman to use the time that they have to change the future. Later, he appeals to Black Adam not to “give up on us” because the “world needs you”. Will the audience be saying the same when they are done watching Black Adam?
Black Adam is a whirlwind of a movie. One just goes along with it. It gives you no time to pause and wonder. That, in the dictionary of superhero movie fans, would mean that Black Adam and the lead actor who holds the film together have delivered their money’s worth. The question is: would a little more have hurt anyone?