The newest entry in the DC Extended Universe, “Black Adam,” starring Dwayne Johnson, has been hyped as a “new phase” and a “change in the hierarchy” for the embattled comic book franchise, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t also been cause for concern. The trailers have looked ponderous and gray, and though the film is directed by the auteur of many lively Liam Neeson actioners, Jaume Collet-Serra, his prior outing with Johnson, “Jungle Cruise,” left his signature verve behind. But, it seems Collet-Serra has got his groove back for “Black Adam,” or perhaps he was saving up said groove for this film, as it’s far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
It helps that “Black Adam” has a distinct and dynamic visual style and tone that distinguishes itself against the “Marvel House Style” we’ve become accustomed to over many, many phases of superhero flicks, which have devolved into a depressing digital sludge offset by an onslaught of cutesy, quippy dialogue. In “Black Adam,” the setting is a bustling Middle Eastern city, the cinematography and digital effects crisp and saturated, the action brutal and bruising enough to test that PG-13 rating, and the quips judiciously are metered out.
Johnson plays an ancient champion from the kingdom of Kahndaq, who received his powers from the Council of Wizards (you might remember them from the DCEU movie “Shazam”). Kahndaq is now a bustling, crime-ridden metropolis, occupied by an organized crime outfit known as “Intergang.” Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), who has been searching for a cursed crown made of “eternium,” awakens Teth-Adam (Johnson) from a 5,000 year slumber while escaping an Intergang faction. The all-powerful champion is essentially a “Dark Superman” — he flies, he has super strength, lightning shoots out of his hands, etc. After a violent clash in the desert, this supercharged Encino Man becomes the protector of Adrianna and her plucky son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui, who steals the whole movie).
But in this universe, there need to be checks and balances on all-powerful beings, so the Justice Society is called up to rein in Teth-Adam (and also to introduce new characters for spin-off movies). Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) swoop in to “promote stability” in the world, and battle it out with Teth-Adam in the streets of Kahndaq. They eventually decide to team up to take on Intergang, who have occupied the country for 27 years, mining eternium and searching for the cursed crown so that their leader, Ishmael (Marwen Kenzari) can ascend the throne as some kind of hell demon king.
Screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani have to power through a lot of expository lore, character intros and various mumbo jumbo, so they take the tack of repeating the beats over and over again: Teth-Adam lost his son in the process of gaining his power, he’s reckoning with 5,000 years of trauma, he’s not a hero, but his damage makes him powerful. There’s also a refreshingly anti-colonialist bent lurking in the story of Kahndaq overthrowing their occupiers, embodied by the rebellious Amon.
While massive global star Johnson is clearly the box office draw, dramatic roles aren’t his forte, and that’s especially clear here, as he delivers a dour and dark dramatic performance that’s lacking his natural charisma. Surprisingly, he’s the weak link. Collet-Serra surrounds Johnson with a charm offensive of supporting actors, including Hodge and Brosnan, who are great, as well as Shahi, Sabongui and comedian Mohammed Amer as Adrianna’s brother Karim. The director does heroic work crafting a film around Johnson that is fast and entertaining, tossing needle drops and skateboard stunts and movie references and zombies and funny uncles and fire demons in the mix just to keep us somewhat distracted from the void that is Black Adam himself.
The whole proposition is all a bit silly, and everyone seems in on the joke except for Johnson. While the film does feel cobbled together out of spare parts of other superhero movies, and it’s almost instantly forgettable, Collet-Serra manages to hold it all together out of sheer force of will and an inherent sense of style. If there’s any superhero to write about with “Black Adam,” it’s him, and it’s a good thing to see he still has some lightning coming out of his fingers.
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Running time: 2:04
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language)
Where to watch: In theaters Friday
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