Movie review: ‘Black Adam:’ Dwayne Johnson fights his own impulses in dour DC entry

In an alternate universe somewhere, Dwayne Johnson is thriving as a quirky, smirking superhero in the Marvel ranks. He’s on his third stand-alone film, has made cameos in a bunch of other movies, and is the smiling face of one of the biggest movie franchises on Earth. Things are great.

Here in reality, Dwayne Johnson is anchoring “Black Adam,” a second-tier member of rival DC Universe, which for whatever reason just can’t pull itself together. Black Adam is an antihero who doesn’t have any qualms about killing the way some superheroes do. In fact, he kind of prefers it.

So you’ve got Johnson, one of the most likeable movie stars on the planet, playing against type as a dour, rather unpleasant character who is unrecognizable to the majority of moviegoers. Things, they could be better.

It’s a credit to the lowered expectations of DC that “Black Adam,” while incoherent for large swaths of its runtime and tonally all over the place, isn’t a complete disaster. Johnson doesn’t do himself any favors by sanding down his natural charisma and burying it beneath a sullen persona. Surprisingly it’s Aldis Hodge, who plays winged superhero Hawkman, who takes advantage of the opportunity and steals “Black Adam” out from underneath its star.

Here’s a quickie on Black Adam: he’s a former slave in the city of Kahndaq who is reborn as a god. His powers — super strength, the ability to fly, the power to slow down time, the classics — are lost and/or gained by saying the word “Shazam,” and yes Shazam already has a place in the DC Universe (“Shazam” was a 2019 movie that made $366 million worldwide), but ignore all that, it’s not even mentioned here.*

(*Djimon Hounsou, who played the wizard Shazam, is seen here briefly, but Zachary Levi, who played the superhero Shazam and the face of the movie “Shazam,” is nowhere to be seen.)

When Black Adam — known here as Teth-Adam, which sounds a lot like Death Adam, which would be a way cooler name — is awakened and he starts killing off members of the military forces that are occupying Kahndaq, he becomes a hero to the citizens of the city, who prop him up as the People’s Champ. (Sound familiar?) But he’s too powerful to go unchecked, so the Justice Society, which is kind of like the Toledo Mudhens to the bigger, more powerful Justice League, is sent in to contain him.

The Justice Society, called into action by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), consists of Hawkman, its leader; Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo); Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell); and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). So now in the story where we’re supposed to be getting to know Black Adam, we’re introduced to four additional superheroes. Got all that?

Luckily, those who don’t read comics or who aren’t well versed in the ups and downs of the DC Universe can draw quickie parallels between the Justice Society members and members of the MCU: Hawkman is a lot like Falcon; Atom Smasher has the ability to grow very big like Ant-Man; Cyclone has powers similar to the X-Men’s Storm; and Doctor Fate, let’s say, is not altogether dissimilar from Doctor Strange.

We also have Amon Tomaz (Bodhi Sabongui), a young superhero fan in Kahndaq whose room is plastered with images of Superman, Batman and the like, who comes to take on Teth-Adam/Black Adam as his own pet project and teaches him about the superhero industrial complex and the importance of catchphrases, the way a young Eddie Furlong taught Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed Terminator in “T2.”

With all this busy plotting — there’s also a Council of Wizards, was that already mentioned? — it’s no wonder that a true villain doesn’t even emerge until the final stretch of the film, when hellbeast Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari) starts shooting blasts of fire from his chest.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who drove Johnson’s “Jungle Cruise” down the river (he also helmed a handful of Liam Neeson joints), is tasked with putting this all together, and making sense of a shifting tone that struggles to balance comic and serious moments and is never quite sure what to make of the figure at its center. Johnson’s stoic performance — you can feel him holding back his natural charm — may service the character as he’s rendered in the comics but it doesn’t serve the movie, and the guy comes off as sort of a drag.

In some ways “Black Adam” is better taken as an intro to the Justice Helpers, er, Society, and the talented Hodge (he played MC Ren in “Straight Outta Compton” and Jim Brown in “One Night in Miami”) emerges as a star. Hawkman stands his ground against Teth-Adam and his character establishes a clear moral center, and he’s the more interesting figure to follow going forward. Hopefully he gets his shot.

The music in “Black Adam” is all over the place — needle drops range from The Smashing Pumpkins to Kanye West to yacht-rock practitioners Player — which is indicative of the ways the movie is openly struggling, in real time, to find its way. The action here is serviceable and is never embarrassing, the way, say, “Aquaman” is. But it’s a long way from super, and galaxies away from the kinds of superheroes Johnson could be playing in a more perfect world.


Grade: 2 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language)

Running time: 2:04

How to watch: In theaters