BLACK ADAM is Weighed Down By Its Star

There are a lot of things to like about Dwayne Johnson’s new superhero movie. Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson isn’t one of them.

The main impression made by Black Adam, the latest in the seemingly inescapable omnigenre of “superhero movies,” is that it feels like a movie out of time. Which makes sense when you consider the history of it. To one degree or another, star Dwayne Johnson has been connected to the character of Black Adam for 15 years. To put that into perspective, that means it was first announced in 2007, a full year before MCU launched with Iron Man. Needless to say, the expectations and culture surrounding superheroes has radically changed in the intervening years. And the position of Warner Brother’s owned DC comics in the culture zeitgeist has shifted, from the industry standard for caped men of wonder to the old dog trying to keep up.

But even by that standard, the movie feels creaky and antiquated, a by-product or reaction to 90s action movies than it does the glut of super-content we are all drowning in. It has at its center a stern but ultimately justified “anti-hero” (whatever that terms actually means), a reliance on gee-whiz technology spectacle such as roaming hover-bikes, a plot that mixes political unrest and pulp-inspired action, and generic bad guys brandishing machine guns in tight hallways. It even has a wisecracking, skateboarding teen. For all these reasons it should feel like a welcome throwback to popcorn fare of a previous age.

But then there is the star at the center. And much like other Dwayne Johnson films, especially in recent memory, any other genre conventions or expectations are thrown out the window because the central mission of a DJ movie is to allow DJ to apply the pressure of his movie star persona as a central locus. This is especially jarring in a film that certainly appears to want to have a perspective and identity but finds itself constantly jerked back into place of being a Dwayne Johnson feature any time that it starts to drift into some other more interesting territory.

This is all the more frustrating when you remember that Johnson can be a welcome and game partner when he allows himself to be given over to an actual role, and not a variant on his own brand of wry bad-ass. The debut of wrecking ball Luke Hobbs in Fast Five, reformed-then-unreformed meathead Paul Doyle in the underrated Pain & Gain, and even his voice acting as Maui in Moana prove when utilized correct, Johnson is an asset a film. But it requires he allows himself to be in service to the material. But increasingly and frustratingly, the focus has been on him being the center of the orbit, a position his specific talents seem uniquely unsuited for.

This phenomenon is especially frustrating in a movie like Black Adam, whose set-up seems to be designed to allow him to be a central peg in an ensemble piece the sets lots of pieces on the board for further exploration. But it is his character who is on the poster, and so any fun that other actors may be having is immediately subjected to the Dwayne Johnson Movie Problem (DJMP for short) and it renders all other efforts to be muted by association.

This particular time, the gruff cypher Johnson uses is Teth-Adam, an ancient warrior and former slave from the fictional Middle Eastern country/city of Kahndaq. 5000 years ago, Teth-Adam defeated an evil king and kept him from releasing the great demon Sabbac. But due to him using excessive force, the council of wizards who bestowed his power upon him locked him away for fear of what he would do with this immense power. Millenia later, Adam is freed from his prison when local archeologist and activist Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) releases him as a means to defeat Intergang, the shapeless occupying force currently controlling Kahndaq. Adam quickly dispatches of several members of Intergang, and is soon convinced to remove them from his home.

This naturally makes certain global forces nervous, namely Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, returning to the role from the Suicide Squad sub-franchise), who contacts a superhero group known as the Justice Society to help her stop Teth-Adam from causing any more damage, and to establish peace in the region. In comics, the Justice Society has had many shapes and incarnations; this time it incorporates a hodge-podge of superheroes that likely wouldn’t warrant their own film, including leader Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), prognosticating mystic Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and youngsters Cyclone (Quintesse Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).

All of this set-up creates a complex series of political intrigue that the film doesn’t quite seem interested in bearing or wrestling with for long. When the Justice Society shows up, Adrianna quickly points out they weren’t in any hurry to unseat Intergang, but are far more interested in controlling the local hero. It is a fair point, and loosely reflects real issues with the history of occupying forces in the Middle East. But as soon as plot threads like this are suggested, they are immediately discarded for more eye-popping action sequences and Johnson’s mugging.

The Justice Society in general is the film’s greatest strength, a collection of actors with takes on characters that make you long for them to all have more screen time. Hodge and Brosnan have immediate chemistry as world-weary friends who have seen much adventure and danger together; Brosnan in particular steals most any scene he is in, understated and dignified in the center of a loud cacophony. Both Swindell and Centineo, as part youthful energy and part comedic relief, are charming and winning. All of these characters have visually arresting powers, characteristics and performances.

But their stories and position in the plot are mostly after thoughts, methods by which Teth-Adam and by extension Johnson to be consistently and constantly superior. More over, while there is much hand-wringing about if Black Adam is a hero or not, there are very few sequences in the actual film where Adam acts as anything other than a hero. He is willing to kill, a point of contention specifically with Hawkman, but the MCU has had multiple heroes willing to cross that line for the past decade as well as DC’s own perspective, and the film’s ethics firmly fall down on the side of “sometimes you just have to kill people,” which makes the moral question seem that much more moot.

Perhaps that is what makes the DJMP so frustrating. People across the board, from the cast to director Jaume Collet-Serra, clearly are making a best effort to create something that will distinguish itself from the constant stream of capes and tights content. But the end result is ultimately either too generic or too muddled to really make an impact. It is less of a superhero movie as it is a Johnson movie, interested in extending and cultivating his own on-screen persona. Johnson has long modeled his career an image on another persona-obsessed movie star of an earlier era, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But the difference is that Schwarzenegger always knew his image had to evolve, and that he could mold to fit into different genre. He was an impressively giving actor when he wanted to be, and trusted the instincts of his collaborators. Johnson by all appearances is less interested in collaborating, preferring to allow those around him to put in the effort of creating an interesting world for him to play against, never in. Black Adam shows that even after a decade and a half of consideration, the gravity of Johnson’s persona proves to be difficult to find actually escape velocity out of, and the end result suffers from it.

Previous post The Gothic Grandeur of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA in 4K-UHD
Next post MORTAL KOMBAT LEGENDS: SNOW BLIND — Animated Movie Hits 4K UHD & Blu-ray