It’s been a long wait — nearly a decade, in fact — since Dwayne Johnson first signed on to become an integral part of the DC universe. He’s recently turned 50 (not that he looks it). But now, at last, he’s launched a big-league entry in the cinematic superpowers world with Black Adam.
This is a gigantic, $200 million sci-fi extravaganza that likely features a higher percentage of screen time devoted strictly to massive action and effects over dialogue than any of its comics-derived predecessors. Given the quality of the dialogue here, this is all to the good, but it certainly won’t deter the devoted fanboys who have been waiting a long time for this one. The large intended audience will no doubt gobble up this extravagantly boisterous other-worldly space circus, which certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen. There it will play for 45 days before beginning to stream on HBO Max.
Whatever one’s verdict is on the New Line Cinema/DC film as a whole, no one can deny that this is a role The Rock was born to play, as perhaps he was. His name was first mentioned in connection with Black Adam way back in 2004, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that he was finally announced for the part — albeit as a villain in the relatively light-hearted Shazam!, which was well received but hardly the vehicle Johnson envisioned to bring his heavyweight character to life. He wisely backed out. No matter what one might think about this Black Adam movie as a whole, The Rock grabs your attention and keeps it no matter what he’s doing. Johnson is the man.
Unfortunately, such arguably worthwhile matters as narrative coherence, appealing characterizations and suspense struggle to emerge here amidst a veritable logjam of intentions and tones. Such matters seem like a mere afterthought in Black Adam, which evinces a strong preference for emphasizing reams of screen-time action over dialogue; brownie points to any mere civilian who can coherently relate the plot and describe the characters’ relationships to one another without a crib sheet. At one point, a little kid asks, “What’s happening?” Good question.
Fairness insists upon acknowledging that there are undoubtedly fanboys and fangirls who could recite chapter and verse about the backstories of all the important figures here and how they intersect as they do; after all, this property has been in development for two decades. But it doesn’t take long to realize that the script, by Adam Sztykiel (Alvin and the Chipmunks, Scoob!) and the team of Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani (the very good and dead serious The Mauritanian), has scant intention of wasting time with trifles such as character background, motivations or emotional attachments. Nope, it’s full bore and no timeouts here; a combination of shouting and concise informational exchanges is what you get by way of dialogue, leaving plenty of room for frequent explosive blasts that make outer space rather louder than usual.
The long and the short of it is that former bad boy superhero Black Adam was subdued 5000 years ago for being a mischievous troublemaker but has now managed to re-emerge with no noticeable deterioration of his splendid musculature. However, what has fallen on hard times is the formerly magnificent ancient kingdom of Kahndaq, which now resembles the worst parts of Sao Paulo or Mexico City. This renegade superhero who has become a legend decides to make it his business to restore the place, and himself along with it, to its former glory days.
There’s little more than this in terms of exposition, which will be something of a handicap for the uninitiated but will be just fine with the fanboys who know all they need to know going in. The filmmakers, for their part, are certain of what their core audience wants and proceed to give it to them, big time, that being the most dizzying action possible. Perhaps not since the heyday of Michael Bay has so much stuff been hurtled about to fill the screen with whatever the filmmakers could summon up and put in motion.
And it only accelerates as things progress, if that is the right word. Scarcely do two or three minutes go by without some outsized event taking place, the meaning and importance of which, more often than not, will be quite inscrutable to those not deeply versed in the doings of these particular DC characters. All that’s left is to anticipate and behold the spectacle, which is indisputably epic in scale. The special visual effects are a constant presence and emerge as the dominant element in the film, the ever-formidable Mr. Johnson notwithstanding.
As the film progresses, it increasingly lets the effects splash upon the screen while waving goodbye to anything resembling an involving story or interesting characters. And splash they do, quite impressively at times. It’s a film entirely prepared, and perhaps even a bit too eager, to dominate and sweep you up in its journey of conquest. But massive resources and the sheer weight of its efforts aren’t necessarily enough to win you over, and even though a good bit of the action here is airborne, that doesn’t mean it ever really takes off.
The film’s dramatic shortcomings would seem at least partly attributable to the equivocal natures of some of the important characters. As noted, Black Adam was born a bad guy, one who’s now been modified into more of a loner type somewhat along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dollars films — he picks his spots, goes his own way and plays his cards as he sees fit. He still seems capable of treachery, but has adjusted his ways and will do what needs to be done as circumstances dictate.
The crew who have to deal with Black Adam as best they can include Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). The characters are colorful and momentarily amusing to behold, but none of them are in Black Adam’s league.
What’s most important here is securely planting the flag for subsequent installments of Black Adam adventures, and that it would seem to do. The visual spectacle just keeps coming at you for two hours, and the effects are all so stupendous that you could begin to take it for granted. Practically every shot features something epic or at least unusual going on and director Jaume Collet-Serra, who guided Johnson’s 2020 hit Jungle Cruise, takes good care to present the star in the most favorable dramatic light. The Rock is always the center of attention of any scene he’s in, and there’s every reason to believe that he’ll soon push ahead to create a string of Black Adam films and make up for lost time.
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