Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s no revelation that DC Comics on the big screen hasn’t fared as well as the Marvel adaptations. The best of DC’s efforts has included a key benchmark to shoot for–that’s John Wesley Shipp’s take on the Flash–from the 1990 TV series and his recent cameo appearances in TV’s Arrowverse. Other actors have formed iconic attempts to match the look of superheroes of the comic books over 80 years, including George Reeves and Christopher Reeve as Superman. But other than Lou Ferrigno taking on the Hulk character on TV in the 1970s for competitor Marvel, Dwayne Johnson is the first person to fill the role of a superhero without the need for padding and actually look like the super-sized characters on the comics pages. In the new movie Black Adam, now in theaters and streaming on Vudu and Amazon, Johnson is Black Adam–frames from the movie look like they were lifted off the pages of years of comic book covers. Zachary Levi’s spin on the original Captain Marvel opened the gates for a renaissance for DC at the movies with his new Shazam, and happily–and promising for DC’s future–Johnson continues the progress in Black Adam.
In ancient Kahndaq (a fictional DC city), Teth-Adam was long rumored to have been bestowed with the powers of the gods. In the story, the legend is that Adam misused the powers for revenge, so he was imprisoned. Nearly 5,000 years pass, and a loose faction in modern Kahndaq tries to find a lost crown to ensure it remains hidden from anyone who might use it for evil ends. The faction is led by a professor and resistance fighter named Adrianna Tomaz, played by American actress of Persian background Sarah Shahi (Fairly Legal, Life, Psych). Along with her brave teenage son Amon, played by the energy-filled, Aladdin-inspired Bodhi Sabonqui (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) and humor-tinged brother played by Mohammed Amer (Ramy, Mo), she finds the crown but is also betrayed by another member of her crew, who works for the “Intergang.”
Teth-Adam (ultimately the title’s Black Adam) is conjured and arrives quite like the Johnson’s Scorpion King in the Universal Studios Mummy movie series. All of the trailers featuring Johnson touting the role were right: he was born to play a superhero and this character is large and in charge. Johnson is perfect in every scene. Unfortunately the story splices two stories together and confines it all to two hours. Normally two hours is smart for a movie, and if the story stuck to Black Adam’s backstory and Adrianna’s efforts to partner with him to free modern-day Kahndaq, it might have been much better.
That second component is introducing for the first time to the DC Universe–at the movies–the Justice Society, which we’ve seen in Stargirl. So we finally get to meet major DC characters Hawkman and Dr. Fate, as well as lesser known Red Tornado’s grand-daughter Cyclone played by Quintessa Swindell and Atom Smasher (actually his nephew) played by Noah Centineo (the surprise brief cameo by a classic actor favorite as the original Atom Smasher may be the stunt cast of the year). Black Adam defies the superhero norm by killing anyone who gets in his way and superheroes just don’t do that, which pits him against the Justice Society in addition to his ancient enemies manifested in their modern-day heirs. This is where the movie becomes a big rock-em, sock ’em punch fest between super-powered characters, which is why the movie is big and fun, but it also skips around so much it feels like much of the story was edited out for time constraints.
In addition to Dwayne Johnson raising the bar filling out a supersuit with his own muscular body, the big attraction is Pierce Brosnan in his debut as Dr. Fate. He, too is perfect in his role, as elder charismatic power wielder, including the flying and battle scenes which incorporate the former James Bond actor’s first motion capture work. Aldis Hodge (Leverage, Black Mirror, Star Trek: Short Treks) also delivers Carter Hall’s Hawkman as a believable and forceful opponent to Johnson’s big bad guy.
Costumers Bart Mueller and Kurt Swanson (The Hunger Games series, Deadpool 2, Ghost in the Shell) earn half the credit for the movie’s appeal. Johnson’s two key supersuits, plus Doctor Fate’s helmet and the spectacular Hawkman helmet and wings are the best in any DC movie yet. Props to the prop department for Hawkman’s trademark mace, too. The rig that lifts Johnson also is a nice special effects trick used to make Black Adam hover menacingly.
Continuity with the rest of the DC Universe comes via a surprise mid-credits cameo and the appearance of DC’s own answer to Marvel’s Nick Fury, Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller, whose role this time makes the movie practically a spin-off of the two Suicide Squad movies. A plus is that some of the movie trailers featuring Johnson were reworked and scenes re-shot for the final cut–so the trailers are pretty much spoiler-free.
Negatives of the film are all the overlaps in characters we’ve seen on the big screen lately. Atom Smasher looks just like Ant-Man in the form of Giant-Man in Captain America: Civil War and the Ant-Man movies. Dr. Fate is a mix of Marvel’s Dr. Strange (complete with similar magic hand flashy light things) and the X-Men’s helmeted Magneto. Hawkman came first but evokes Marvel’s first-to-the-screen winged superhero Falcon. The entire movie has many parallels, especially visually, to Marvel’s X-Men: Apocalypse, including Black Adam’s destruction of Kahndaq, and Cyclone is a doppelganger of that movie’s take on famous X-Men heroine Storm. Kahndaq is also a mirror idea to the Wakanda of Marvel’s Black Panther, including reliance on a key mineral, Eternium here for Marvel’s Vibranium. At one point Adam strikes an incredibly cool pose on a throne much like King Conan. These aren’t the “faults” of DC, just realities of years of each comics publisher copying each other’s ideas.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, and produced by Johnson, Black Adam is a positive step forward for DC movies. Taking on the concept of Middle Eastern superheroes, Marvel’s Moon Knight series was a better effort. Shahi’s character is underutilized, and viewers expect her to have some kind of rise into her own superheroine like Layla in Moon Knight, like the Isis of the comics. The movie doesn’t have the heart of Shazam! or Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and the idea of an anti-hero is better handled in the 1989 Batman, but Black Adam surpasses the rest of the Justice League movies in action and fun.
The home release includes ten short features, with each of the main cast, the director, and producers discussing their roles, along with backstory on the comics. It has no deleted scene segment, which may indicate an extended edition could be coming one day. It’s clear based on interviews with writers in the features that more elements were extensively discussed and possibly even filmed that didn’t make it into the final cut. The home release also has no director’s commentary feature.
Consider Black Adam an improvement for the DC Universe and a fun superhero movie, filled with action, and another solid Dwayne Johnson star vehicle. Black Adam is now in theaters and streaming on Vudu and Amazon.