Somewhere between the lighthearted fun of Shazam! and the gritty slow motion of Zack Snyder, you have Black Adam. While these two tones don’t always mesh, the film is more consistent than the theatrical cut of Justice League. Part of that’s because Jaume Collet-Serra doesn’t have to share directorial duties with Joss Whedon. However, the primary reason for Black Adam’s success boils down to its star. Dwayne Johnson has embraced goofy premises in films like The Jungle Cruise and the Jumanji franchise. We’ve also seen him maintain a straight face in silly adventures like The Scorpion King. Black Adam requires an actor who’s constantly dead serious, but can still be funny and charming. Johnson is tailormade for that, saving Black Adam with some other well-cast performers.
The film opens in 479 B.C. as Leonidas prepares to lead his Spartan army… oh, sorry wrong movie. In all fairness, though, the first ten minutes is essentially 300 with more magic and fewer six-packs. Black Adam actually commences with an enslaved boy standing up to the tyrannical king of the fictional city, Kahndaq. For his bravery, the boy is gifted the power of Shazam nearly five thousand years before Billy Batson. In modern day, archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) and her team seek out an ancient crown said to possess unparalleled powers. They not only find this artifact, but also awaken who they believe to be Kahndaq’s imprisoned champion, Teth Adam, aka Black Adam.
Adrianna takes Adam home where he meets her superhero-obsessed son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui). Their dynamic is reminiscent of the T-1000, Sarah, and John Connor, right down to Amon critiquing Adam’s catchphrases. Like the T-1000, Adam has no reservations about killing those who get in his way. He’s not exactly a hero, but he may be the savior that Kahndaq needs, especially since the city is sick of waiting for Superman. Instead of the Justice League, Amanda Waller sends the Justice Society. This team includes the no-nonsense Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), the suave Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the tech-savvy Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Ant-Man/Deadpool hodgepodge Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo). Did I mention this is also their origin story?
In the spirit of other DCEU movies, Black Adam runs the risk of juggling more heroes than it knows what to do with. Unlike Batman v Superman, though, the film does a commendable job at balancing the cast with each member getting a moment to shine. Brosnan is especially charismatic and arguably more fun to watch than Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange. Yet, for a film called Black Adam, there are times when it feels like the titular character is fighting to get back on screen. Adam is absent for a good portion of the story when it essentially becomes of Justice Society movie. During this period, one character makes a decision that would’ve carried more weight if this weren’t their first movie. It’s not as rushed as Superman’s Doomsday sacrifice, but it could’ve left such a stronger impact if DC played the long game like Marvel.
Just as Birds of Prey should’ve been called Harley Quinn, Black Adam and the Justice Society would’ve been a more accurate title for this movie. That said, Johnson is well-equipped to play Black Adam. Each member of the Justice Society works off him well. Had some of these characters been already established, though, more time could’ve been dedicated to fleshing out Adam and the villain, the latter of whom is a bore. While the action is satisfying, this is a PG-13 movie that clearly wanted to go for an R. Black Adam isn’t everything it could’ve been, but there’s enough promise to be excited about a sequel. For now, the character is firmly between the Rock and a hard place.