Black Adam is a deeply mediocre superhero movie that is also extremely frustrating. Meant to introduce a universe-altering character to the DCEU’s patchwork of films and characters that hang together in name only, Black Adam comes SO close to having something to say and making actual points through its superhero allegory, that when it sacrifices themes and character development for explosions and noise it’s disappointing, even though we should be inured to this after 20+ years of superhero cinematic domination. It really stands out here, though, because Black Adam sets everything up, only to blatantly abandon actual ideas in favor of slow-mo action sequences and self-aggrandizing cinematic puffery. If you want to make a dumb superhero movie, fine. But don’t make half of a good superhero movie and then turn it into a dumb one because the star remembered he was making a vanity project halfway through.


Dwayne Johnson stars as Teth-Adam, an ancient demigod buried for thousands of years in a Mummy-esque trap pit because he went HAM once in the olden days. The film uses both extensive flashbacks and an annoying present-day “misunderstanding” to try and make a mystery of Teth-Adam’s “real” identity, but it’s the least mysterious thing ever. You will figure it out in three minutes or less, I promise. But Black Adam assumes you are dumb and persists with the misunderstanding about who Teth-Adam really is until deep into the third act. Infuriating. Teth-Adam is assumed to be the “champion” of Khandaq, a resource-rich nation plagued by invaders and exploiters. 

In Teth-Adam’s time, it was his own king, Ahk-Ton (Marwan Kenzari, doing the opposite of #HotJafar), enslaving his people and forcing them to mine for “Eternium”, a stupidly named Macguffin which properties are never fully explained (shades of Avatar’s equally dumb “Unobtanium”). In the present day, Khandaq is enduring a decades-long occupation by “Intergang”, a deliberately bland cohort of criminals (shades of Top Gun’s faceless, nationless “enemies”), who are also mining Eternium for…reasons. The flashbacks reveal Teth-Adam was once a slave, and his son, Hurut (Jalon Christian), a brave young man who inspired a rebellion. The film pretends that the consequences of this are complicated and mysterious, but again, it’s not. All we’re supposed to know is that Teth-Adam ended up infused with the power of the gods—Teth-Adam shares space with Shazam, the teen superhero also powered by god juice—and Hurut, er, vanished from history. But again, you will figure this out immediately, Black Adam is not a clever movie.


But it COULD have been. In the film’s best sequence, the “Justice Society”, a sort of B-team Justice League, shows up to Khandaq to rein in Teth-Adam. Carter “Hawkman” Hall (Aldis Hodge) states that they are there to ensure “global stability”, but Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), who freed Teth-Adam, throws facts in Carter’s face—Khandaq has been victimized socio-politically and economically, and neither the Justice Society, nor any superhero, ever did anything about it. The Khandaqi citizens welcome the Justice Society with boos and jeers and see Teth-Adam as their champion once again, as he (super violently) dispatched a horde of Intergang soldiers. He is literally the first metahuman to show up and do anything about the violent occupation of a sovereign nation, and the Justice Society calls themselves the heroes? The nerve!

This setup is both simple and brilliant. Superheroes arrive in a place in desperate need of extra-judicial help. Clearly, the international process has failed Khandaq, and all that is left is the kind of help a metahuman can provide. But no metahumans have ever helped, until Teth-Adam, and the Justice Society wants to take him into custody because he was, what? Too effective? The implication is clear—the Justice Society is there to stop Teth-Adam because he threatens world order, which depends on Khandaqi subjugation. It’s the ultimate superhero throwdown! NO ONE has had the guts to use a superhero film to say, out loud and with their whole chests, that superheroes serve the status quo, and they can never really function outside of a paramilitary framework because to imagine superheroes as the liberators of oppressed people is to imagine liberation. Superheroes fight aliens and robots and other superheroes, they do not fight the global social order. But Teth-Adam does!  


For five minutes. Because after introducing this premise, that Black Adam will see Teth-Adam, billed as an anti-hero, simultaneously becoming the hero of Khandaq while setting himself at odds with “real” heroes like the Justice Society, Black Adam drops it entirely. It’s all just a big misunderstanding. Teth-Adam is plagued by guilt and regret, but if he can just believe in himself hard enough, he, too, can be “good” like Hawkman, and in the end, the big bad is not the very concept of superheroes serving morally compromised masters, but another metahuman. Teth-Adam isn’t much of an anti-hero, really, except that he prefers to kill all-comers, which irks Hawkman, a goody two-shoes. The promise of a superhero movie in which the superheroes must confront their own complicity in a corrupt system, and an anti-hero is embraced by an oppressed public not because he is good, but because he expressly is not, is forgotten.

Or rather, it’s sacrificed. It is abundantly clear that Dwayne Johnson does not want to be really bad, he only wants to look bad—as in, cool—as he slow-walks away from many explosions. Director Jaume Collet-Serra deploys the same speed-ramping technique in action scenes that marks Zack Snyder’s films, and indeed, especially in the first half, Black Adam feels like a holdover from the Snyder era of the DCEU. Some people will undoubtedly love that, others will embrace the blatant sequel bait strewn throughout the film promising that Teth-Adam will someday punch Superman in the face (never mind that Black Adam’s number one foe is Shazam). Parents of small children will be bummed out that this is one superhero movie that is definitely not tot-friendly.


And everyone else can be annoyed by the wasted premise, and the waste of Johnson’s one-time charm as a charismatic heel in professional wrestling. He should have been a stellar anti-hero, someone whose charm overcomes initial disgust for his methods and cynicism, but this is Johnson’s least-charming performance on record. He is actively joyless to watch. Hodge is equally charmless as Hawkman, though it feels like he was meant to play the straight man to a version of Teth-Adam that is more gleefully villainous than the one we ended up with, so all we get are two grim dudes grumping at each other for two hours. 

Pierce Brosnan, at least, adds a dash of flair to the proceedings, and youngsters Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell bring much needed enthusiasm with them. But the film bows under the weight of Johnson’s dreary performance, and no amount of face-punching can make up for the waste of such a bold premise. The point of an anti-hero is to highlight the failings of the heroes, and Black Adam almost does just that before throwing it away so that Johnson can strut as Nega-Superman. Black Adam wants to be the film that “rights” the DCEU, but it’s just another messy, shallow entry into a sloppy canon that won’t commit to real ideas. 

Black Adam is exclusively in theaters from October 21, 2022.


Attached: The Rock promotes Black Adam in Madrid on October 19, 2022.