Black Adam spoiler review: Dwayne Johnson shines in bog-standard DC film

DWAYNE JOHNSON as Black Adam in New Line Cinema’s action adventure “BLACK ADAM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
DWAYNE JOHNSON as Black Adam in New Line Cinema’s action adventure “BLACK ADAM,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. /

*Spoiler alert! The following article contains spoilers for Black Adam*

Jaume Collet-Serra is a highly gifted filmmaker. Even his weaker efforts are worth watching, especially his collaborative works with Liam Neeson. The man knows how to shoot effective action and elicit pure emotion from his actors. Without Collet-Serra at the helm, most of Neeson’s recent action works have been lacking in catharsis and depth. And now he’s working (again, after the exuberant, but terribly formulaic Jungle Cruise) with Dwayne Johnson to bring Black Adam to the screen after more than fifteen (!!!) years of development.

After all of this anticipation, the movie is finally here and the hierarchy of power in the DC universe is about to change (I had to say it, after more than 2.5 years of Johnson hammering that tagline in). How does the hierarchy of power in the DC universe change, you may ask? Well, it doesn’t change much, other than introducing a quasi-hero who is deemed as a threat to the world when he is reawakened by Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) who is looking for the Crown of Sabbac with her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and colleague Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari).

They find the crown, but also Teth-Adam, Kahndaq’s hero who vanquished King Anh-Kot 5,000 years ago. Now that he has returned, the Justice Society of America, comprised of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) is alerted of Adam’s presence in Kahndaq by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and move to neutralize him. Their goals: take the Crown of Sabbac before it gets into the wrong hands and make Teth-Adam say “Shazam!”

It seems simple enough, but they soon realize that Adam is stronger than their powers combined. And the situation starts to complicate itself when Ishmael is after the Crown of Sabbac, planning to reincarnate his body as Sabbac and become ruler of Kahndaq. After a pretty dull opening section littered with horribly written expository voiceover narration, giving us the gist of how Teth-Adam originated, the movie kicks into gear and becomes a visually staggering, albeit minimally developed, feast.

Serra and cinematographer Lawrence Sher craft a slew of high-stakes and visually exciting action setpieces that become the core of the movie. Most of the picture is set in Kahndaq, with one action scene following the next, and the next, and the next. Its pace is relentless, always keeping the viewers on their toes instead of fleshing out the character of Teth-Adam beyond the brooding “anti-hero” he is. But I won’t lie: the action scenes are a thrill to watch. There are so many fun visual callbacks to some of the greatest action movies ever made, including a riff on Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly that ends in one of the film’s best visual jokes. Serra has a clear vision of how he wants the action to look and feel, and it’s such a joy to watch him craft high-stakes set pieces on IMAX.

They’re what kept me mostly engaged in the story, as paper-thin and convoluted as it is, with the sound design and Lorne Balfe’s impeccable score being another massive highlight. Serra doesn’t show most of Black Adam’s gruesome killings, but he makes us hear them fall to their death way too many times for us to know how frightening of a potential threat he can be. In my opinion, it’s much more effective than directly showing it to us, even if we sometimes see them falling in the background of a well-constructed frame. The movie is never visually boring, and consistently pushes the envelope to impress us in that regard.

Johnson was born to play Teth-Adam in Black Adam

Its performances are also excellent. Yes, Johnson was born to play Teth-Adam. There’s a real dedication to the role that I haven’t seen from the actor since Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, which is arguably his best performance. Johnson knows how to play the tough guy without an ounce of effort, and his acting style is a perfect fit for Black Adam. While some may think that the movie would be “too dark,” Johnson’s style of deadpan humor for Black Adam made the theater erupt in laughter multiple times throughout the film. It works much better than Mohammed Amer’s physical comedy, which unfortunately didn’t do much for me. It’s a shame, because I’m a massive fan of his performances in Ramy, and in Mo, the latter of which he co-created with Ramy Youssef. He tries to give his character some life, but the material he’s given doesn’t work.

But that’s a problem with every character. They’re pitifully developed. Everyone does a great job playing them (save for Adrianna and Bohdi Sabongui’s Amon who aren’t on the same level as, say Pierce Brosnan), but their arcs aren’t polished enough. Brosnan and Hodge are major standouts as Doctor Fate and Hawkman, simply because they’ve always given out terrific performances. Brosnan, in particular, infuses a level of dread throughout his tenure as Doctor Fate that makes him the most interesting member of the JSA. He can see the future, but is tired by these premonitions and envies everyone living in the present. It’s a great way to approach Fate, but that aspect of his personality is barely touched upon. Still, when Brosnan inunciates “the Crown of Sabbac” or fights against the Demon in the film’s most vivid fight, there’s real emotional depth to his portrayal of the character that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible if another actor had played him.

And as for the villain, well…Marwan Kenzari is two for two at playing an over-the-top antagonist who transforms himself into a giant (red) Demon-like creature during its climax. He should find another agent immediately because it’s another total embarrassment. He’s a great actor, but his iteration of Jafar in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin was highly stereotypical and poorly written. It’s no different in Black Adam, well, save for the fact that he has less depth than Jafar. He’s just a clichéd villain who’s looking for the thingamajig that’ll make him the most powerful being in the world. Oh, where did we see this kind of storyline before? I know, every other superhero movie ever. Boring.

But you know what wasn’t boring? Superman’s return. The joy of seeing Henry Cavill don the cape and cowl again, even for a brief moment, was worth the trip to the theater. The man was born to play The Man of Steel, and I genuinely hope we will be getting a Black Adam vs. Superman film very soon, and it won’t take fifteen years to make it. Sratch that, I just hope we’ll see Cavill again in a role that won’t be a post-credits cameo. He deserves a sequel to Man of Steel and to be the new face of the DCEU, after David Zaslav burned the bridges by canceling Batgirl and a slew of other projects.

Did the scene change the hierarchy of power? No. Was it great to see Cavill again? Absolutely. And from the euphoric reception the scene received at my screening, people are ready for Superman to make his grand return to the screen. Some have enjoyed Black Adam, while others have detested it. I found it mildly passable. If it wasn’t for Serra’s clear eye for visceral action and superb performances from Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, and Pierce Brosnan, I may have found it dull. But I didn’t. I was surprisingly charmed by its attempt at a dark, but level-headed superhero movie that pays tribute to some of our favorite classic action films, with a spectacular appearance from Henry Cavill to boot. It’s not a film I’ll remember in a couple of weeks (save for the post-credits scene), but it’s also not a film I hated. Take it as you will.

Black Adam is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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