'Black Adam': Dwayne Johnson Can't Save This Bland Superhero Movie
The evolution of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's career is an interesting one. From his early days of being a pro-wrestler, to breaking out into film (with varying degrees of success), to becoming a bonafide action star and raking in millions of dollars at the box office, Johnson has been on an upward trajectory for some time now. He's a proven box office draw, and coupled with his impressive physique, casting him in a superhero movie seems like a no-brainer. Johnson has been tied to various iterations of a Shazam! movie, and has been attached to play the character of Black Adam for many of them. It's clear that Johnson has been passionate about playing the character for some time now, and he was quite instrumental in finally getting this film made. One might think that Johnson finally getting the chance to make a superhero movie would be a high point in his career, but it feels more like a valley than a peak, all things considered. Johnson may have the passion, the status, and the career momentum that should make Black Adam a slam dunk, but the film itself lands with a thud, and is one of the worst superhero movies I've seen in a while.
The film begins in the fictional nation of Kahndaq, where a young slave boy is given the power of the gods (or Shazam) but is then imprisoned for 5000 years after using his powers to take down a tyrannical king. When he is released in the present day, he is confronted by the Justice Society of America, who share a different view on justice and heroism than he does. He must work with them to help take down an evil crime syndicate, and to help save Kahndaq from their oppressive regime.
The film's basic premise is somewhat familiar and kind of simple, but it also makes sure to cram in as much lore, secondary characters, and plot threads as it possibly can. This leads to the film feeling overstuffed and messy, and it's as if it is trying to do too many things at once. So many of these details feel unnecessary, and could have been reduced in the film, or just cut altogether, and it probably would have made the film better in the process. The film's expository details, while needed, are presented in dialogue heavy sequences, and are frankly quite boring. It's not that the lore itself is boring, per se, but it is just delivered in such a way that fell flat for me. The character of Black Adam himself is fascinating on paper, and even some of his origins are as well, but the film significantly saps the intrigue from both of these elements. Even when the film gets going, it feels so unfocused, and crams so much into it that it feels almost assaultive, and takes away from the things about it that actually work.
The script is the main source of the film's issues, as it seems to throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. It tries to cram a whole bunch of plot and several characters into a roughly 2 hour long movie, but both aspects feel surface level in the context of the film. It's not like I'm expecting the plot and characters in a film like this to be super detailed and three-dimensional, but both are so thinly written here that it's frustrating. A prime example of this is the film's villain, Ishmael, who is so forgettable and bland. I found myself not really caring about the character, and even when he takes an interesting turn later in the film, I was unimpressed. The film as a whole is just so weak on a script level, and this undermines it majorly.
The direction certainly isn't doing the film any favors, as this is easily one of Jaume Collet-Serra's worst efforts to date. I wouldn't say I've ever been a fan of Collet-Serra's work, but I still appreciate some of his earlier films for what they are. However, as he has taken on bigger projects, I feel like his films have been declining in quality. Collet-Serra seems to work better when he has a smaller budget, and struggles with more larger scope films. This is quite apparent in Black Adam, as some of the larger setpieces aren't great, but some of the close combat isn't half bad. A sequence where Black Adam has a fight in an apartment is actually kind of good, but the rest of the action is pretty rough. The big setpieces are very hit or miss, as they have some redeeming factors, but tend to be lacking for the most part. I feel that he gets close to pulling them off at times, but he doesn't quite get there. I just feel like he's a little out of his element for much of the film, as he's just not the best match for the large scope of the film.
With a film like this, the visual effects could have been a saving grace, but alas, they're pretty dicey. Some of the CGI is straight-up bad, but the rest of it is perfectly okay at least. The use of green screen, on the other hand, is quite distracting, as it is quite horrible in certain moments. Obviously, a film like this is going to have to utilize green screen quite a bit, but when it is so obvious that it takes you out of the film, then it feels inexcusable. Furthermore, the film feels like its taking a lot of cues from Zack Snyder, specifically in the way that some of the flashback scenes are shot and color graded, as well as the borderline gratuitous use of slow-motion all throughout the film. The Snyder-isms are so poorly used, and just feel like the film is ripping him off. Given how big the budget on this film is, you would think that the special effects and the general look of the film would be higher quality, but it just ends up looking artificial on the whole.
I will say that the scenes that focus on the Justice Society of America are some of the best of the film, as there actually seems to be some effort put into the writing for these scenes, and that the film has assembled a great cast to portray them. Pierce Brosnan is quite good as the JSA's leader, Doctor Fate, and brings an underlying charm to the role. I also enjoyed Aldis Hodge as Hawkman, and feel that he might be one of the stronger characters of the film, largely thanks to Hodge's performance. Hodge pulls off some of the film's more emotional moments, and nails the toughness of the character quite well. I personally thought Quintessa Swindell was good as Cyclone, but she is somewhat underused. I feel like she gets lost in the messiness of the film, which is a shame since she's pretty decent here. The weakest link of the group is easily Noah Centineo, who is rather irritating throughout. I've never thought of him as a great actor, and his work here doesn't help this. Thankfully, he's not in that much of the film, but I really didn't care for him or his character too much.
And then, there's Dwayne Johnson himself. I've never been overly impressed with Johnson as an actor, but I feel like he's able to do what is asked of him more often than not. He's pretty good in a couple of movies, but for the most part, his acting is serviceable at best. This is quite accurate here, as I wouldn't say he's bad in this film, but he's not doing anything incredible here either. He's kind of good in the film's action sequences, but other than that, he feels a bit flat. I get that the character is supposed to be a bit more stoic and have a steeliness to him, but Johnson doesn't quite convey this properly. Instead, he just feels too muted and dull for much of the film. Again, I get that the character is a bit more reined in, but a little charisma could have made a big difference here. Perhaps in the hands of a more capable actor, the character could have shined more, but in Johnson's hands, he doesn't have as much of an impact as he could have.
There was a part of me that was hoping Black Adam would at least be some good, mindless fun, but it feels so bland and uninspired that I barely enjoyed it at all. If it wasn't for the Justice Society stuff and some good casting, this film would have been an absolute disaster. Some of the stuff involving Black Adam's back story isn't terrible, but the rest of the film is so bogged down by all the extraneous plot details that it overshadows some of the narrative details that actually work. One could argue that I'm looking at this film too deeply, but even in looking at it on a surface level, it doesn't work for me at all. It's not that enjoyable, the plot is so crowded and unfocused, and the visual effects and general aesthetic are mediocre at best. It's funny to me that Dwayne Johnson has been saying "The hierarchy of power in the DC universe is about to change" in regards to Black Adam, as this is easily one of the weaker DC films to date, and it fails to have me feel one way or another about the character in general. At best, its a total shoulder shrug of a film, but at worst, this is a major low point for the DC universe.