BLACK ADAM – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Dwayne Johnson (San Andreas), Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton), Noah Centineo (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), Sarah Shahi (Person of Interest), Marwan Kenzari (The Old Guard), Quintessa Swindell (Trinkets), Bohdi Sabongui (A Million Little Things), Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise)

Writers: Adam Sztykiel (Rampage) and Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani (The Mauritanian)

Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes

Release Date: 21st October (US, UK)

Synopsis: Awakening after five thousand years, the slave-turned-demigod Teth-Adam must come to terms with his deification by the people of Kahndaq, all whilst combatting both the invading paramilitary forces of Intergang and the superhero team The Justice Society.

Dwayne Johnson was born to play a superhero, and despite multiple offers and fan castings, the wrestler-turned-Hollywood superstar has kept his eyes focused on one dream role for nearly two decades: Black Adam. Best known as the archenemy of the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel, he’s not the character you’d usually expect to debut in his own movie; in fact, he was originally supposed to be the main villain of Shazam!. However, due to Johnson’s star power and after a multitude of production delays, the protector of Kahndaq has finally arrived on the big screen as the first major DC release of the Warner Bros. Discovery era. With the future of the DCEU very much up in the air after 2023, Black Adam finds itself in a less extreme but still comparable situation to 2017’s Justice League: caught creatively between where the franchise has been, and where the studio is trying to make it go. Its split priorities have ended up producing a film that has every piece it needs to be great, but remains confused as how exactly to stick them all together.

Whilst technically a spin-off of Shazam!, Black Adam connects just as much to the wider DC world as it does to its immediate cousin, but not in a way that majorly indicates where the cinematic universe is headed as a whole; it very much is a smaller story set within a larger world. The film’s biggest issue shows itseld almost immediately with its impatient pace and poor structuring. The entire first act is muddled as we are quickly thrown into the thick of the story, leading to a disorienting barrage of scenes that feel like they are being played on fast-forward. It screams of a production that has been heavily fiddled with throughout, with all the focus placed on spectacle whilst plot and character are left on autopilot. The dialogue is plagued with clunky exposition and motivations are explained over and over again, as if the filmmakers are worried the audience won’t be able to follow, when the issue is less how complicated the story is (because, on paper, it’s not at all) and more how poorly they are telling it.

Thankfully, things do improve once all the pieces are firmly on the board. The film takes some breaths in the second act, allowing the actors to be more personable instead of just yammering about the plot, forming some decent characterisation along the way. It does just enough to get you to care about these characters before it hits the finale, which is where the movie finally comes alive and manages to end things on a high. What surprisingly is the picture’s biggest saving grace, of all things, is its thematic richness. It really focuses in on Kahndaq as an exploited nation, plundered for its resources and ignored by first-world nations. It creates an interesting dynamic once Adam is revealed to the world and the Justice Society step in, with the supposed heroes being treated as hostile by the locals and yet another example of a big foreign power intruding on their issues. It’s not explored in as much depth as it could have, but it confronts the issue in a far more blunt and honest way than Captain America: Civil War, which focused far more on collateral damage than the actual morality of America sticking its nose in other nations. It’s the perfect backdrop to an antihero story, one where the morality of all its characters is put into question, especially those who believe they are righteous. I just wish it was handled with more grace.

Dwayne Johnson as Teth-Adam/Black Adam and Aldis Hodge as Carter Hall/Hawkman in BLACK ADAM (2022, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

After so many years hyping up this role, Johnson does indeed prove he’s a good fit for Black Adam. He has clearly cobbled together elements from other comic book characters; namely, Thor’s bemused relationship with the modern world, Drax’s stoic literalism, and Peacemaker’s brutal and steadfast approach to “justice”. That said, the combination makes for an entertaining mix and a refreshing departure from Johnson’s usual interchangable protagonists, literally storming through most of the movie like a Kryptonian Jason Vorhees. He’s a bit of a blank slate at first, but as the film goes on and we learn more about his back story, he becomes more compelling as we come to understand the difference between the legend of Teth-Adam and the real man behind it. Despite this, the story still gives us a more grounded viewpoint with Sarah Shahi and Bohdi Sabongui as professor and resistance leader Adrianna Tomaz and her son Amon respectively. Whilst Sabongui’s performance is sadly typical for a child actor, the character captures a similar charm to Ms. Marvel as a superhero fan who tries to mold Adam into a more traditional hero. Meanwhile, Shahi mostly seems to exist to spout exposition, yell after Amon, or just be someone for Adam to speak at. Given the Tomaz’s role in the comics, they serve a sadly perfunctory role with little indication of the direction they may go in.

As if our titular character played by the biggest movie star in the world wasn’t enough, Black Adam also serves as the cinematic debut of a bunch of other DC superheroes big and small, and from a casting point-of-view they’re all great. Aldis Hodge serves as the leader of the Justice Society as Hawkman, and he plays him as a sort of curmudgeonly, by-the-books boy scout whose will is tested by Adam’s disinterest in playing fair. It’s fun to see his self-seriousness broken and brought to anger by Adam being so nonchalant in his violence, and Hodge absolutely nails that. Pierce Brosnan makes for a great Doctor Fate, whose own disconnectedness from reality makes for a good mirror to Adam, and his wise temperment and relationship with Hodge gives the film a heart at its otherwise spectacle-driven centre.

Sarah Shahi as Adrianna Tomaz and Pierce Brosnan as Kent Nelson/Doctor Fate in BLACK ADAM (2022, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Noah Centineo is the big surprise here as Atom-Smasher, and whilst he’s obviously cribbing from Tom Holland’s notes by being a reticent and clumsy youngster in awe of his teammates, his himbo edge gives him enough of a unique flavour and is responsible for most of the gags that land. Quintessa Swindell sadly draws the short straw amongst the Society as Cyclone, who plays the role with gusto and has a few fun interactions with Centineo as a fellow new recruit, but otherwise adds very little to proceedings; you could easily cut her and not miss much. But easily the biggest weakness, and a pretty common one for the genre, is the villain played by Marwan Kenzari. The marketing hasn’t said much about his role, so I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a very undercooked part that’s made even more frustrating by the potential it occasionally shows. Kenzari is a talented actor who could make for a great comic book villain, and it’s sad to see his shot wasted on such a ho-hum baddie.

From an aesthetic perspective, Black Adam is easily the closest a DCEU movie has come to being indistinguisable from an MCU production, mainly in how it lacks the distinct directorial style that has helped DC’s pictures stand out from Marvel’s more uniform policy. Jaume Collet-Serra is the most journeyman of a director the superhero genre has had since Alan Taylor, and though Jungle Cruise proved he could handle blockbuster action after a background in mostly horror and thrillers, this really does feel like a more work-for-hire gig because of his prior relationship with Johnson rather than being the only filmmaker who could do justice to this character. The action sequences are fine enough, emulating Zack Snyder mostly with extensive slo-mo, but there’s nothing really too definitive or memorable about any of it. What really ruins the film’s techincal presentation is the editing and soundtrack choices. This is easily the worst edit job since the original Suicide Squad, with sequences that were clearly much longer pared down to the bare minimum, especially during the needle drop moments where the songs barely have a chance to play before the scene is over. Plus, the music choices are just bad. Including “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones, for instance, is just too obvious, whilst chucking on “Power” by Kanye West makes more sense but…is highly questionable given recent events.

Noah Centineo as Albert “Al” Rothstein/Atom-Smasher in BLACK ADAM (2022, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Black Adam is a movie that is so close to being good, and with a few small tweaks it could have even been great, but it’s just too much of a mess in so many departments. After being on something of a consistent positive streak post-Justice League (from my POV, anyway), it’s heartbreaking to see DC fall into many of the same traps that tripped them before. You can hear the ideal version of this film screaming for help at certain points, mainly from the cast who do such a phenomenal job at keeping it entertaining, all whilst the flimsy script and choppy editing does them no favours. Whether Johnson’s charisma alone can carry it across the finish line at the box office remains to be seen, but I can certainly say Black Adam isn’t unsalvagable. I mean, if James Gunn can rummage through the scraps of a junker like Suicide Squad, and use them to make not only one of the best DC movies but also one of the best superhero TV shows ever period, some filmmaker can easily do the same for Teth-Adam and the Justice Society.

Then again, who really wants to risk working under David Zaslav right now?


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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