The latest entry in the DC Extended Universe, Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson, has been hailed as a “new phase” and “change in hierarchy” for the embattled comic book franchise, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems wasn’t a cause for concern. The trailers looked ponderous and gray, and although Jaume Collet-Serra, the author of many lively Liam Neeson actioners, directed it, his earlier outing with Johnson, Jungle Cruise, left its signature panache behind. But it seems Collet-Serra got his groove back for Black Adam, or maybe he saved it for this film, which is far more entertaining than it should be.
It helps that “Black Adam” has a distinct and dynamic visual style and tone that differs from the Marvel “house style” that we’ve become accustomed to in many, many phases of superhero films that have settled into a depressing digital mud- Offset through an onslaught of cute, funny dialogue. In Black Adam, the setting is a bustling Middle Eastern city, the cinematography and digital effects are crisp and saturated, the action brutal and gory enough to test the PG-13 rating, and the jokes are judiciously dosed.
Johnson plays an old champion from the kingdom of Kahndaq who got his powers from the Council of Wizards (you might remember them from the DCEU movie “Shazam”). Kahndaq is now a modern metropolis overrun by an organized crime force known as the Intergang. Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), who has been searching for a cursed crown from “Eternium,” awakens Teth-Adam (Johnson) from a 5,000-year slumber when she escapes an intergang faction. The almighty champion is essentially a “dark superman” – he flies, he has super strength, lightning shoots from his hands, etc. After a violent clash in the desert, this charged Encino-man becomes the protector of Adrianna and her brave son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui who steals the whole movie).
But in this universe, almighty beings must be controlled, so the Justice Society is called in to rein in Teth-Adam (as well as introduce new characters for spin-off films). Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) rush in to “promote stability in the world” and battle with Teth-Adam on the streets of Kahndaq. They eventually decide to band together to take on Intergang, who have occupied the land for 27 years, mining Eternium and searching for the cursed crown so their leader, Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari), can ascend the throne as some sort of Hell Demon King.
Screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani have to wade through a lot of explanatory lore, character intros, and various mumbo jumbo, so they try to repeat the beats over and over again: Teth-Adam lost his son in the process, and he wins his Power, he counts on 5,000 years of trauma, he is not a hero but his damage makes him powerful. Lurking in the tale of Kahndaq, who overthrew her occupiers, is a refreshingly anti-colonial bent, embodied in the rebellious Amon.
While global star Johnson is clearly a box-office hit, dramatic roles are not his forte, and that’s particularly evident here as he delivers a dour and dark dramatic performance that lacks his natural charisma. Surprisingly, he’s the weak link. Collet-Serra surrounds Johnson with a charm offensive from supporting cast, including Hodge and Brosnan, who are great, plus Shahi, Sabongui and comedian Mohammed Amer as Adrianna’s brother Karim. The director does a heroic job of making a fast and fun movie centered around Johnson, throwing needle drops and skateboarding stunts and movie references and zombies and funny uncles and fire demons into the mix just to distract us from the emptiness that is Black Adam himself .
The whole suggestion is all a bit silly, and everyone but Johnson seems caught up in the joke. While the film feels like it was cobbled together from spare parts from other superhero films and almost instantly forgotten, Collet-Serra manages to hold it all together out of sheer willpower and an innate sense of style. If there’s one superhero to write about with Black Adam, it’s the director, and it’s good to see that lightning still shoots out of his fingers.
Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.
Rated: PG-13, for high violence, intense action and some speech sequences
Duration: 2 hours, 4 minutes
To play: Begins October 21st in general release
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-10-18/review-black-adam-dwayne-johnson-dc-extended-universe ‘Black Adam’ review: Fun, despite a charisma-free Dwayne Johnson