Black Adam Review: A Superhero Movie, But Worse

It is perhaps telling that Dwayne Johnson, star of Jaume Collet-Serra's new superhero film "Black Adam," has recently appeared in the press announcing that his film will feature a notable post-credits cameo. These sorts of cameos, hints, and miniature previews have, over the course of the last decade, become the lifeblood of superhero movies, forcing audiences to look always forward to the next chapter rather than dwell on the present. Each film served almost exclusively as a preview for the next. Back in 2015, the late film critic James Rocchi called this phenomenon the Marvel Industrial Complex, pointing out how the genre had, as early as seven years ago, already foregone conventional storytelling in favor of anticipation-based corporate architecture. 

"Black Adam," true to this ethos, feels more like a hastily speed-read footnote than a feature. It's a jumbled mess of a movie that grabs great fistfuls of all-too-familiar blockbuster beats and throws them into a whirling, noisy centrifuge, hoping something cogent separates out. "Black Adam" features an extended prologue set in the ancient world, a battle with the wizards from "Shazam!," an unexplained high-tech super military force, and the hurried introduction of a quartet of established DC superheroes, previously unseen on film. "Black Adam" also features that most insufferable of clichés, the hip tweener who dictates the "rules" of modern superherodom to the title character (sample dialogue: "You gotta have a catchphrase!"). There was a time when acknowledging the superficial trappings of comic book heroes right to their faces might have felt subversive or novel. 2022 is long past that time.

A hero from pre-Babylonian times

"Black Adam" begins in the ancient fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Kahndaq, the only known site of a magical ore called Enternium. Slaves have been forced to dig nuggets of Eternium out of the ground to build a magic crown for the king. The actual power or function of Eternium is about as well-explained as the vague and valuable Unobtanium from James Cameron's "Avatar." Given their silly names, the ore could very well have been called McGuffinium. When a slave child rebels against his overseer and is about to be executed for his crime, he is suddenly whisked away to another dimension by the wizards from "Shazam!" and given Shazam powers. Legend holds that the now-enhanced wizard champion, Teth-Adam, destroyed the ancient temple in retribution. 

DC Comics have always brushed up a little bit more closely to the Divine than their modern, New York-dwelling Marvel counterparts (even when Marvel is dealing with literal gods), and the pre-Babylonian origins of Black Adam lend the character a distant whiff of the mythic so sorely lacking from most larger-than-life superbeings. 

Sadly, any mythic qualities the character has are drowned out by buckets of sloppy mayhem. Fast forward to modern-day Kahndaq, and it is now occupied by a gang-like military force that has — without explanation — access to phasers and flying motorcycles. DC fans might thrill in hearing this is a group called Intergang, although that name has no meaning in the context of this film. There is no mention of a dictator, and the members of Intergang seem to have accents from all over the world. It's a multi-culti occupying force.

The new/old (?) Justice Society

Sarah Shahi plays Adrianna Tomaz, a freedom fighter and freelance archeologist who will have the wherewithal to resurrect Teth-Adam, now played by Dwayne Johnson, in the modern day. Teth-Adam's first action will be laying waste to an invading military force. One might say that Teth-Adam's murderous approach to superherodom is novel, but after the wonton destruction witnessed in 2013's "Man of Steel," or Iron Man's wholesale battlefield slaughter in "Avengers: Endgame," it seems all bets have been off for a while. Tomaz will eventually take Teth-Adam back to her apartment where her superhero-enthusiast son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) will immediately and intolerably dictate to him the rules of being a superhero in this universe. 

The posters and comic books that festoon Amon's room will be pointedly trashed during a fight scene later in the film. It's awfully presumptuous of the filmmakers to assume that Black Adam is important enough to symbolically destroy Superman, Batman, and The Flash.

Teth-Adam's appearance also inspires the involvement of Suicide Squad assembler Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) who will quickly construct a team of superheroes to fight him. The new characters include Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), who wears a high-tech pair of wings, Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), a wizard with an extraterrestrial helmet that can predict the future, Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who can grow to enormous sizes, and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), who can fly on gusts of rainbow-colored wind. The filmmakers provide these characters with no origin, which is a small relief, although it may be difficult to glean just how well-established the Justice Society has been in this universe. 

Mayhem — and just mayhem — ensues.

The outline of a superhero movie

There is not a single quiet moment of meaning or introspection in "Black Adam." There is no thought or recognizable humanity. There is not a moment that doesn't have Lorne Balfe's musical score blaring underneath. Jokes are delivered with such haste, it might take a moment to acknowledge those moments were meant to be funny. The filmmakers know that certain fights and confrontations and villains and McGuffins needed to be included, but fail to effectively establish mood or stakes. The editing is so quick and perfunctory, "Black Adam" emerges feeling like an outline rather than a finished movie. There is no wit, no thrill, and no slickness to the action. "Black Adam" reeks of studio tinkering and endless recuts. Even visually, the film is unclear and undynamic with action often obscured by clouds of dust or Dr. Fate's shimmering CGI geometric crystal shards. 

"Black Adam" even fails as a builder of its own universe. If we now live in a world where superheroes require no origin stories and entire teams can be introduced on the fly, what function does the origin story movie have? Setups for a vast comic book cinematic universe, it seems, aren't as urgently required as they were back in the days of 2011 when Thor and Captain America were slowly revealed to the public in their own solo feature films. 

If the entire function of "Black Adam" is to set up a fight between Adam and Superman, as Johnson has said in public, perhaps skip a "Black Adam" movie and make only a 50-minute-long fight sequence. "Black Adam" is so hard to watch, it might make us want to skip the pretense that these are meant to be real movies. 

/Film Rating: 3.5 out of 10