Black Adam isn’t just another superhero movie for Dwayne Johnson. It has been his passion project for more than a decade, beginning when he was attached to be part of a Shazam film. Johnson’s power behind the scenes has grown to superheroic levels in that time, and he has used that to craft a movie built just for him and in his own image. Lots of muscles, lots of punching, lots of Johnson looking like the most powerful and intimidating dude in the entire DCEU. This is by far the darkest DC Comics film yet, and it’s also one of the most entertaining with Johnson going the extra mile to tell a story that could easily be expanded into a long-running franchise or possibly spin off into others.
To the film’s benefit, the action takes place almost entirely in Kahndaq, a fictional Middle Eastern country. A lengthy prelude tells us it’s people are the first to ever self-govern, however they are largely enslaved by a despotic ruler who forces them to dig up a rare mineral called “Eternium”. He needs it to forge a powerful crown infused with the power of demons. But Teth-Adam (Johnson) refuses to be a slave and fights back with powers granted to him by the gods.
The clash ends with Adam buried in a tomb of rubble, only to be rescued thousands of years in the present day Kahndaq. The people are still enslaved, only now by the terrorists known as Intergang, and Adriana (Sarah Shahi) seeks the long-lost crown to save her people. She unleashes Black Adam from his tomb, which signals the superheroes known as the Justice Society to arrive and fight against the all-powerful god who has no compunctions about killing anyone who stands in his way.
And kill Black Adam does. While he doesn’t target any innocents, and even saves one without a second thought, his murderous way towards others puts him at odds with the Justice Society, in particular its leader, Hawkman (a terrific Aldis Hodge), who sees him as just another villain. Others in the group are a bit more open-minded: the mystical Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), and newbies Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell).
What follows is the obligatory hero vs. hero misunderstanding squabble. But at least for me, Black Adam doesn’t truly take off until the JSA arrive and the heroes start throwing around superpowers. I’m a JSA junkie so seeing the team on the big screen is just plain awesome, and Hodge’s version of Carter Hall/Hawkman is kick-ass. His role in the film was much larger and more pivotal than I would’ve thought. There’s a philosophical battle at play just as much as a physical one. Without going too far into specifics, the film does a good job of setting up Black Adam’s attitude towards heroism. But even better is the people of Kahndaq’s feeling towards outsiders like the JSA swooping in and causing so much destruction after ignoring the problems there for years. It’s a small thing, but at least some thought has been given to how the population of a foreign land would feel about having a bunch of super-powered Americans interfering.
It’s actually a little surprising that the JSA gets so much attention because it absolutely takes some focus off Black Adam. I’m surprised Johnson allowed that. As it stands, Black Adam’s story is a dark spin on the journey Clark Kent took in Man of Steel. He is also on the path to learning how to be his own kind of hero, taking in the very harsh lessons he learned as a youth to figuring out what needs to be left behind. Black Adam does slaughter dozens of people and cause immense amounts of chaos, which could make him a tough protagonist to get behind. And while Johnson’s natural gregarious personality is toned down to play the grim, laconic Black Adam, his charisma is as strong as ever. Johnson promised the “heirarchy of power” was about to change in the DCEU, and Black Adam convinces you he wasn’t lying.
Johnson brought along his Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra, who does a good job following the default DCEU formula for action scenes. This isn’t a knock; I generally think the visual effects look great, but I’d also be lying to say they’re particularly special. The best stuff is in the details; the way the screen blurs with every one of Cyclone’s splash page entrances, the crystalized aura of Dr. Fate, the gleam of Hawkman’s Nth Metal mace, the glow of Black Adam’s lightning insignia.
Black Adam is another strong step in the right direction for the DCEU, without becoming bogged down by continuity. That said, there are connections to the wider universe that pose some intriguing questions and possibilities for the future. Will we eventually see Black Adam teaming up with members of the Justice League? If Johnson has anything to say about it, and we know that he will, Black Adam is only the beginning of many incredible superhero clashes to come.
Black Adam opens in theaters on October 21st.