Black Adam Spoiler Review: A Promising Film With Odd Choices

The DC Universe was in need of a hero. DC's plans to emulate the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been hampered now for years by a host of unfortunate factors. "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice" was met by strong critical derision. Snyder's "Justice League" follow-up was further hindered by the director stepping away due to family tragedy, with the film completed by Joss Whedon — a process that expensively altered a movie that also underperformed relative to expectations. The result was a Warner Bros. that sought to implement new leadership and move on without Snyder's vision, followed by campaigns for DC to fund "Zack Snyder's Justice League" amidst a tense battle to determine the way forward for future DC films. It's no surprise that new Warner Bros. head David Zaslav's call for someone to spearhead a 10-year vision for the DC slate of films has so far gone unanswered

Enter Dwayne Johnson, who has been campaigning to get "Black Adam" made for a whopping 15 years. The film singlehandedly aims to get DC's ball rolling again with more heroes and the return of established ones, and it has a lot going for it. Strong combat scenes. Excellent character interpretations by Johnson, Hodge, Brosnan, and Swindell, all of whom I'd love to see return. "Black Adam" multiplies the DC characters that the studio will have to play with so definitively that "spontaneous IP generation" may well be one of the character's powers. At the same time, it would benefit from slowing down, taking extraneous plot points and characters out, and honing a number of plotlines and character choices that don't yet quite work. As a pile of plug-and-play ideas for future movies, it's a massive success. As a standalone film, not so much.

If you don't want major moments of the film spoiled, you can catch our spoiler-free review here

Major spoilers follow for "Black Adam."

Exposition faster than a speeding speeder

"Black Adam" begins thousands of years ago in the ancient kingdom of Kahndaq, whose tyrannical king forces its many unfortunate slaves to work themselves to death in the search of the magical, under-explained ore Eternium. The king desires to forge the magical Crown of Sabbac for nefarious purposes. When an enslaved child rebels against their treatment and is soon to be executed, he's transported to another dimension by wizards (the same from "Shazam!"), chosen as their champion, and given godly powers. Legend has it that the powerful warrior returned post-powers and destroyed the king's temple, and the mythical champion was lost to history... at least until he isn't. 

Our story takes place when Teth-Adam (better known as Black Adam, played by Dwayne Johnson) is awoken by rebel Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) to combat the nation's newest oppressors, the mercenary cartel Intergang. Turns out they're led by Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari), a descendent of said past nefarious king who betrays Adrianna and hopes to acquire the Crown of Sabbac to restore his bloodline's rule. With the brutal Black Adam is reawakened and set to liberate Kahndaq against Intergang (who are nearly in possession of the dangerous crown), the Justice Society is dispatched to stop ... well, not the villains, but Black Adam.

If that introduction strikes one as overly long and complex, it's because the beginning of "Black Adam" flows a mile a minute. The entire film's pacing feels condensed, with too much shoved into a relatively tight package with so many new characters and a torrent of exposition. The postproduction process involved cuts to de-center the Justice Society a little more in favor of Black Adam, and further cuts in waves to secure a PG-13 rating, and you can feel the need for more space and more time.

Not to tell Amanda Waller how to do her own job, but someone needs to

Black Adam's initial moments upon waking in the modern world are filled with two things. First, his newfound makeshift relationships with Adrianna Tomaz and her superhero-and-exposition-loving son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) propel Adam to gradually take responsibility for the ills of modern Kahndaq. Second, his very violent way of handling business runs afoul of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who sends a team to handle the newfound godlike powerhouse. They are the Justice Society, composed of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), and the newer members Cyclone (Quintessa Spindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).

Amanda Waller's plan here isn't great. This team is going up against a violent, magical god-man, but Atom Smasher and Cyclone have variably little experience and are poorly matched for Adam. The aggressive-hero-with-divergent-strategy rivalry between Hawkman and Black Adam is welcome, highlighting the former's use-the-law approach to heroism against the latter's grind-into-a-pulp take. Of the team, Brosnan's Doctor Fate is the best choice and is explicitly chosen for his magical abilities ... though many of which aren't seen in the film. One of his key powers is his ability to see into future possibilities (fate is literally in his name), so it's curious that none of his visions allow him to see that Black Adam isn't the true threat and can be reasoned with. Most of all, why wouldn't Amanda Waller send Wonder Woman after Black Adam? God power versus god power. Magic versus magic. His best power she doesn't share is lightning, but Wonder Woman literally takes lightning to work. With all this effort to make Black Adam say "Shazam" and take away his own powers, one hit of the Lasso of Truth and all Wonder Woman would have to ask is "what word do you say to get your powers?" Checkmate.

Young Amon finds himself with the crown and ends up captured by Intergang and Ishmael. As the protagonists start to work reluctantly work together to capture the crown and save the boy, each evolves. We discover Black Adam was granted his powers by the wizard's true champion, Teth-Adam's son, instead of being chosen by the wizards themselves. After a long attempt to save young Amon, Black Adam defeats the king (so he thinks) and agrees to say "Shazam," rescind his powers, and be locked away in an underwater prison by Amanda Waller.

Few major character choices make sense

A funny thing happened on the way to protect Kahndaq. The crown had been long adorned by a seemingly innocuous statement that life is the only road to death. As it turns out, the crown's power comes from the underworld, a perverse reflection of our own, and therefore the crown truly means that death is the only road to life. When Black Adam killed Ishmael, it allowed Ishmael to become the demons' champion Sabbac and unleash the forces of the underworld on Earth (which I guess are just skeletons, because the demons themselves don't try to fight or send anything novel). In all this dialogue about what the inscription means, the expert Adrianna never properly considered that the crown's ancient language could be read backward. 

The Justice Society fights Sabbac, and Doctor Fate (who had been seeing visions of Hawkman die) moves forward against Sabbac alone as a ploy to unleash Black Adam and save Hawkman, sacrificing himself in the effort, and Black Adam and Hawkman (who uses Doctor Fate's helmet to multiply) defeat Sabbac for good. For all the build-up of the Crown and Sabbac, it should be noted that ignoring him for nearly the whole film and then dispatching him easily (albeit in a fun-to-watch way) is rather anticlimactic. Nonetheless, Black Adam and the Justice Society part on tentatively good terms and Black Adam destroys the ancient throne, refusing to be yet another ruler of Kahndaq.

While the conclusion is a decent one in many ways, very little makes sense about the route to get there. 

First of all, one of Doctor Fate's most characteristic powers is knowing fate, so why take Black Adam out of commission just to dethaw him in what feels like no time at all? Why not just use the helmet's power to keep Hawkman safely out of harm's way and send his multiples at Sabbac, instead of needlessly dying in front of his friend? Why didn't the de-powered Teth-Adam say "Shazam" before leaving Amanda Waller's underwater prison, and instead try to swim to the surface AS A REGULAR PERSON, FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR. Why are untrained Kahndaq residents easy matches for Sabbac's evil skeleton army? Why is Atom Smasher there, when his most notable accomplishment for the majority of the film was to destroy an ancient city? 

The bottom line is that, while "Black Adam" has many excellent elements and this lifelong DC fan really hopes for future outings of all these characters, between Waller's plan, the Justice Society's choices, and so many other narrative problems, almost none of the film's major elements or plot moments fully work.  There are some truly positive components of this film, but most of those are wrapped in major plot contrivances, dragged to the bottom of the ocean, and buried in Amanda Waller's Extrajudicial Prison Palace.