The DC Extended Universe has struggled to find a consistently successful identity almost since its creation. There have been a few bright spots; Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam!, Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad spring to mind. More often than not, however, the DC films have come off as dour, convoluted experiments that fail to grasp the formula that turned Disney’s MCU into an inescapable juggernaut: Clear world-building, distinguishable characters and a commitment to a singular brand identity. Say what you want about their homogeneity, the Marvel films are nothing if not consistent. Black Adam isn’t going to change the DCEU’s sputtering trajectory. If anything, the latest entry highlights the DC franchise’s worst traits, then doubles down on the incomprehensibility. Dwayne Johnson’s first outing as the ancient super-powered antihero is a clanging dud that swaps out internal logic and compelling characters for poorly-executed spectacle and hopes you won’t notice the difference.
We’re first introduced to Black Adam through legend. In the ancient city-state of Kahndaq, Black Adam is given powers by a council of wizards—the same ones who bestowed superhuman abilities on Billy Batson in Shazam!—and rises as his enslaved people’s champion. After a battle with Kahndaq’s power-mad king, Black Adam is put to rest for five millennia, during which time Kahndaq is overtaken by a series of tyrannical invading forces. He’s re-awakened by Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), an archeologist who wants Black Adam to fight off the Intergang, Kahndaq’s current oppressors. Black Adam’s resurrection also catches the attention of the Justice Society of America, led by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), who employs his newly-assembled team to get the volatile meta-human under control.
It’s easy to watch Black Adam and feel you’ve missed an important entry somewhere that introduced all the characters, or at least gave us some context for them. You haven’t, the film just doesn’t have the patience to do that work. Not only for Black Adam and Hawkman, but the rest of the Justice Society of America: Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). The result is two hours of mounting conflict between characters we have no reason to care about, with motivations so unclear that the movie has to grind to a halt every 20 minutes so the characters can explain what’s going on.
To the cast’s credit, they’re at least trying to act like the lack of background information is totally normal. Centineo and Swindell have cute, eager young adult chemistry, and Brosnan somehow manages to bring gravitas and emotional intelligence to a character whose name, abilities and backstory aren’t even fully clear until the third act. Hodge’s Hawkman comes across like a humorless scold, but that’s mostly because the character is written that way. Weirdly, the biggest cipher here is Black Adam himself, who we get lots of exposition about, but very little insight. Johnson’s a bit like a Terminator with a single directive: You just have to point him in the direction of the baddies and watch him go to town. Some of this changes in the third act, but it’s too little too late.
To distract from the lack of dynamic characters or understandable plot, director Jaume Collet-Serra clogs the screen with action sequences that aren’t choreographed so much as made up of a bunch of single shots smashed together. One battle between Hawkman and Black Adam barely shows footage of Hodge and Johnson fighting at all, settling instead for flashy CGI closeups of Hawkman’s armor slicing through posters on a wall, and noise that lets us know someone was just thrown across the room. Occasionally, Collet-Sera tries to infuse the film with a bit of excitement from oddly-timed pop music cues, as if he knows the audience’s attention is waning and thinks a sudden needle drop of The Rolling Stones or Kanye West will do the trick to get everyone back on the same page.
There’s potential in Black Adam for an interesting thematic conversation about the jurisdiction and ethics of superheroes, but that gets sadly buried under the cascade of rubble from the buildings the JSA, Intergang soldiers and Black Adam destroy as they battle. Without any distinguishing characteristics, Black Adam’s superheroes look like Marvel knockoffs when they deserve better. It all adds up to another frantic grab by a studio desperate to wring success from a superhero universe they’ve never fully understood.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer: Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan
Release Date: October 21, 2022
Abby Olcese is an entertainment writer based in Kansas City. Her work has appeared at /Film, rogerebert.com, Crooked Marquee, Sojourners Magazine, and Think Christian. You can follow her adventures and pop culture obsessions at @abbyolcese.