“The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change.”
This was the ambitious promise made by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the legion of Warner Bros. employees at his back, leading up to the release of Black Adam, the first all-new DC Extended Universe movie release in over a year. Thankfully, we also got Matt Reeves’ excellent reboot, The Batman, as well as kid-friendly animated romp, DC League of Super Pets in the meantime, though both of these DC movies take place outside of the DCEU’s continuity. This only further reflects the perpetually tumultuous and uneven reinventions that constantly occur within and without DC’s central cinematic universe, as the latest management shakeup in the wake of Warner Bros. merging with Discovery once again begs the question of what exactly the future holds for the Distinguished Competition.
All this is to say, why should one get excited about the latest promise of a supposed ‘evolution’ for a cinematic universe that has already spent its entire existence struggling to find a consistent foundation? This identity crisis immediately trips Black Adam at the gate, as it makes a valiant, but ultimately futile effort to once again wrangle the increasingly messy DCEU canon into a definitive cinematic event that wants to get you excited about the future of DC’s movies. This means more hastily-introduced characters and factions from DC lore, more promises of future plot threads that threaten to simply be abandoned in the future, and more desperate efforts to motivate audiences to trust the larger franchise synergy of DC, right as Warner Bros.’ and DC’s management once again undergoes a shuffle, no doubt leading to yet more tweaking and tampering with DC Films’ increasingly nebulous plan for what’s to come.
Still, one has to respect the effort, I suppose. Black Adam certainly throws all of its weight at being an edgy, attention-grabbing DCEU addition, trading in the brilliant subtlety of The Batman from earlier this year, and replacing it with a lot of sound and fury that too often signifies nothing of interest. Black Adam is nonetheless watchable, and can even be fairly entertaining during its better moments, but for all of its promises of evolving the DCEU to an exciting new level, this latest DC franchise starter just ends up feeling narratively empty, with even its anti-hero protagonist struggling to contribute a lasting impression to a cinematic world that still can’t determine how it wants to operate almost a decade later.
Johnson’s Black Adam, known throughout most of the movie by his birth name, Teth-Adam, is an expected far cry from the noble designs of the Justice League heroes before him. This is a character that’s furious, lethal and enormously destructive, beginning his longstanding comic book career as a full-on villain in fact, before more recent DC Comics storylines reinvented him as a complex anti-hero that remains unafraid of brutally murdering his enemies. True to form, Johnson’s Black Adam has no interest in being a hero as well, instead being roused from a 5,000-year slumber to find his home kingdom of Kahndaq occupied by the oppressive forces of Intergang, a sprawling mercenary army that derives its influence from alien vehicles and weaponry.
Not that said alien tech is much help to Intergang once they piss off the super-powered thug that was formerly sleeping underneath them. Despite Johnson’s perpetual scowl in Black Adam’s leading role, he’s clearly relishing the dark methodology of his titular DCEU anti-hero, dispatching legions of Intergang goons in surprisingly brutal fashion throughout. Indeed, you might as well rebrand Intergang as the cannon fodder gang in the DCEU, as they hopelessly turn their weapons against Johnson’s virtually invincible protagonist, only to keep being obliterated in spectacular fashion. On this note, it’s fairly impressive to see just how much violence and brutality Black Adam manages to get away with here, with Teth-Adam melting, frying, ripping and crushing hordes of his attackers, and still proudly managing it under the banner of a PG-13 rating.
As cool as some of Teth-Adam’s savagery can be however, the fact that he’s literally unstoppable throughout most of Black Adam quickly deflates the movie’s stakes. Worse still is that James Gunn previously delivered a more successful, adult-oriented evolution of the DCEU between last year’s stellar soft reboot movie, The Suicide Squad, and its equally superb TV spin-off, Peacemaker, and those DCEU yarns worked so well because of how disposable and damaged their characters truly felt. Johnson’s Teth-Adam however is a god-king with an attitude that never manages to feel effectively humanized, even as efforts are made to give him a tragic family backstory that nonetheless fails to adequately flesh out his motivations beyond killing for sport, or at least out of annoyance.
Somehow, there’s a magical champion that’s even less fleshed-out than Teth-Adam as well, and that’s Black Adam’s villain, Ishmael Gregor, who seeks the movie’s main macguffin, the Crown of Sabbac. Why? Well, he really, really wants it, I guess. Marwan Kenzari is once again frustratingly wasted in a major franchise vehicle, after Disney previously squandered his talents as arch-villain, Jafar in 2019’s live-action Aladdin remake, with Kenzari portraying a one-dimensional turncoat baddie that only exists to create a flashy, CG-laden climax. Even then, by the time the Crown of Sabbac’s power is properly unleashed, Black Adam has mostly exhausted its paltry handful of ideas, simply resulting in a final confrontation that leaves us with more frustrated questions about the magical lore of the DCEU, while Teth-Adam and his begrudging allies are left to try and out-CG an undercooked antagonist that fails to elicit any sense of engagement.
As you can imagine, a grumpy 5,000-year old slave massacring an army of fools might leave you feeling a little cold after a while. Black Adam attempts to remedy this through its introduction of the Justice Society of America, or JSA for short, yet another superhero faction that the DCEU has inexplicably never mentioned before now. Even more confusing is the fact that the JSA has a hotline to Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, returning from the current duo of Suicide Squad movies and Peacemaker, and sadly reminding us of how much more successful James Gunn was at creating an edgy new gold standard for the DCEU in the process.
“As cool as Teth-Adam’s savagery can be however, the fact that he’s literally unstoppable throughout most of Black Adam quickly deflates the movie’s stakes.”
It’s still nice that Black Adam tries its best to tie in the DCEU’s R-rated lore through Waller’s scenes, while also tipping its hat to the presence of the Justice League heroes through tons of in-universe merchandising, a trick it borrows from 2019’s Shazam!. Speaking of Shazam!, that fan-favourite movie is also given more concrete ties to the wider DCEU here, thanks to the return of Djimon Hounsou’s Wizard Shazam, represented in flashback as once again being among the gatekeepers of the Shazam Family’s powers, as well as the vessel through which Teth-Adam gained his own powers. Johnson has publicly expressed enthusiasm for digging deeper into the DCEU’s potential lore, as well as creating more opportunities for tighter connectivity between its disparate heroes, villains and factions in the future, and you might be surprised to hear that Black Adam is the furthest-reaching DCEU flick since 2017’s Justice League in that regard.
Sadly though, this also frustratingly marks a return to the overstuffed feel of some of the DCEU’s earlier movies, such as 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Almost none of the JSA’s heroes are given an appropriate level of development in Black Adam, with Aldis Hodge’s leader figure, Carter Hall/Hawkman feeling particularly shafted as a one-note boy scout that’s wasted on being Teth-Adam’s own Jiminy Cricket. Likewise, while they’re cute to watch together, Noah Centineo’s Al Rothstein/Atom-Smasher and Quintessa Swindell’s Maxine Hunkel/Cyclone don’t manage to be more than the loose cannon rookies who are trying to find their footing in Hawkman’s shadow, though I will give Centineo credit for being a surprising comedic highlight at times, largely because he feels like some sort of unholy fusion between Paul Rudd’s Giant-Man and Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool. Perhaps no arm of the JSA is more creatively bankrupt than their home base in the DCEU however; A mansion with a private jet hidden underneath their sporting grid, in a design stolen so blatantly from 20th Century Studios’ X-Men movies that it almost feels like a taunt.
The one actor who manages to mine something more from the DCEU’s disappontingly dull introduction to the JSA is Pierce Brosnan, portraying century-old magical soothsayer, Kent Nelson/Doctor Fate. Able to hide safely behind many layers of prism-flavoured CGI, Brosnan’s world-weary JSA partriarch adds some welcome thematic gravitas to the debate behind dealing in absolutes, and the true meaning of being a hero, both themes that Black Adam purports to explore, but too often gets bored with. Not even Brosnan is fully safe from Black Adam’s agonizingly predictable plotting though, as the movie’s plotline goes through the motions with an almost winking self-awareness, trying to turn the conventional superhero narrative on its head, though instead ultimately leaving its storytelling in first gear underneath all of the destruction and carnage.
Among Black Adam’s more distinct ideas is its examination of Kahndaq, a familiar DC Universe location that’s something of a melange between high-profile Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey, and a nation that Black Adam’s comic book inspiration often rules with an iron fist. The DCEU’s modern take on Kahndaq portrays it as an occupied state with plenty of modern comforts, as doled out by Intergang, but one that also escapes the notice of the DCEU’s superheroes. This is despite Kahndaq seemingly drowning in Justice League merchandise, complete with an in-universe DC Comics imprint, perhaps symbolizing Kahndaq’s citizens seeing the conventional superhero narrative as fantasy, despite real-world superheroes existing outside their doors.
Director, Jaume Collet-Serra, reuniting with Dwayne Johnson after last year’s Jungle Cruise, does everything he can to bring Kahndaq to life, and make it feel like a living world with plenty of history. The true plight of Kahndaq is also represented less through Johnson’s Teth-Adam, and more often through Sarah Shahi’s Adrianna Tomaz, along with her son, Amon, played by Bodhi Sabongui, and brother, Karim, played by Mohammed Amer, providers of the human perspective behind Kahndaq somehow never receiving any aid from the Justice League or the JSA, at least not before an unstoppable metahuman menace finds his way there. There’s almost an exciting opportunity to explore a new arm of the DCEU’s superhero politics through Kahndaq, a foreign power that’s somehow occupied by an independent criminal enterprise, apparently untouchable by the DCEU’s heroes under most circumstances, though much like Wonder Woman 1984’s previous cursory glance at another fictional Middle Eastern DC nation, Bialya, Black Adam unfortunately fails to adequately explore its setting’s circumstances, along with how it ended up in its current predicament.
Like I said, a lot of this is due to Black Adam frustratingly being unable to commit to its own themes of moral greyness and desperate measures. The exceptionally murky lore behind how the DCEU’s mainline superheroes operate, a problem exacerbated further by their heap of stalled/failed movie projects, doesn’t help either, quickly leaving the politics of Kahndaq underutilized and underwhelming. Things aren’t much better in Black Adam’s predictable flashbacks either, with the one noteworthy twist behind Teth-Adam’s backstory unfortunately being buried by more boilerplate bellyaching over the Crown of Sabbac, an ill-defined macguffin that fails to connect to the more interesting commentary explored throughout Kahndaq’s human angle, the human angle that’s quickly lost on Teth-Adam’s unstoppable rampage.
For all of Black Adam’s shortcomings in its narrative and focus, you can at least rest assured that the DCEU’s reputation for technical ambition is upheld nicely here. Black Adam’s action scenes may lack a sense of stakes, but if you don’t mind the mindless CG mayhem, they’re at least easy on the eyes. A clear emphasis was placed on Black Adam looking impressive over actually feeling impressive, but there are still some solid money shots amid the unrestrained display of superpowers and violence. As far as brainless fun goes, Black Adam at least manages to succeed there, leaving a trail of bodies in a way that’s rather disposable, but still visually striking more often than not.
I should also mention that Lorne Balfe’s original score is pretty great to boot, continuing the DCEU’s hot streak of superb soundtracks. The only weak spots in the score come when Black Adam inexplicably sees fit to cram in licensed tunes during a couple of its action scenes, like the Rolling Stones’, “Paint it Black” or Kanye West’s, “Power”, which only elicit cringe, and only take away from Balfe’s mighty, bombastic score, especially when both of these numbers are among the most cliched licensed songs that this soundtrack could have included.
“Among Black Adam’s more distinct ideas is its examination of Kahndaq.”
In true DCEU fashion, Balfe’s soundtrack can be overwhelming in its sheer power, and could risk being obnoxious if you’re not getting into the destruction around you, but this approach to the score nonetheless continues to lend itself effectively to such an unhinged, all-powerful protagonist. It may not change the fact that much of Black Adam’s most noteworthy achievements are surface-level, but the expectedly high DCEU polish remains present and accounted for here. It’s just too bad that the themes and plotting don’t manage to keep pace with all of this movie’s flashy window dressing.
(NOTE: The ‘Spoiler’ section, when clicked, discusses whether Black Adam has any post-credits scenes, whether it features any additional DC characters of note, and whether it sets up any future DCEU projects.)
As for Black Adam’s clear and extensive connection to the Shazam Family in DC lore, you may be surprised to learn that, outside of Djimon Hounsou reprising his role as Wizard Shazam, there are no direct connections to the plot of 2019’s Shazam!, nor are there any characters that make appearances from that movie. Black Adam remains bizarrely detached from the DCEU’s Shazam Family in the end, despite the common link of how they got their powers, and despite the fact that Black Adam has served as an arch-rival to the Shazam Family for nearly a century of comic book lore. It’s quite possible that a crossover between Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam and Zachary Levi’s Shazam could still happen in the DCEU’s future, but for now, there doesn’t appear to be any real foreshadowing of that happening in DCEU continuity.
Black Adam has talked a big game leading up to its release, but its final product can often feel like all sizzle, no steak for the perpetually uneven DCEU. Dwayne Johnson attempts a much edgier, broodier leading man than his usual crop of smiling, cocky bruisers, something he manages to achieve with fair success here, but even Johnson’s sheer charisma can’t single-handedly elevate a major franchise vehicle that continues to leave DC’s mainline cinematic universe struggling to find a consistent rhythm.
Thus, we’re saddled with a lot of half-baked ideas that look nice and sound appropriately powerful in execution, but never manage to feel truly memorable or impactful. Black Adam rings even more hollow after James Gunn already contributed a brilliantly dark new flavour to the DCEU with The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker to boot. Black Adam may nonetheless be decently entertaining, but it’s still ultimately very forgettable, because it just doesn’t feel like it has a point. We already have plenty of anti-hero media that puts more clever, interesting spins on this kind of character. This unfortunately leaves Black Adam as the latest ill-fated DCEU blockbuster that feels like a head-scratching sidestep, rather than a true forward evolution for a cinematic universe that never seems sure of where it’s going.
- Black Adam's impressive brutality
- Flashy action scenes nicely flex the heroes' powers
- Appropriately bombastic soundtrack
- Characters are far too underdeveloped, especially the villains
- Predictable, boilerplate storytelling throughout
- Squanders its promising anti-hero themes