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The Rock of Eternity – ‘Black Adam’

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Passion is a funny thing. Sometimes, the ideas that consume us will seem strange to the outside observer. No matter – when the muse strikes, we must follow it.

And when the muse strikes The Rock, well … he winds up starring in a massive blockbuster revolving around a relatively obscure comic book character who vacillates between hero and villain depending on who happens to be writing him at the time.

“Black Adam” is the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe. Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera and starring the aforementioned Dwayne Johnson, this film places Black Adam – a Shazam-adjacent villain who has in recent years evolved into more of an antihero type – at the center of the frame.

While certainly not in the top-tier of well-known DC properties, Black Adam has a couple of things going for him as a character. He’s got a power set that matches well with the DCEU’s heaviest hitters, which helps. And he’s the type of guy who maybe isn’t so worried about how alive his foes are when he’s done with them.

Oh, and the Rock has apparently been obsessed with him since childhood, so that certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to getting a movie made.

“Black Adam” isn’t the best DCEU movie we’ve gotten, but neither is it the worst. It is firmly in the middle. There’s a ton of pretty good action and superheroic violence. The narrative – such as it is – is rather lacking. And there’s a bit of “ends justify the means” moralizing that gets a bit complicated, along with some ham-fisted attempts to address things like colonialism and complex geopolitics – problems that can’t be solved by punching them. Still, there’s some fun to be had here. And let’s be real – it was long past time we got to see The Rock do the superhero thing.

In 2600 BCE, the kingdom of Kahndaq is thriving, a cultural and intellectual hub. But when power is seized by the evil dictator Ahk-Ton, the realm is plunged into chaos. Ahk-Ton’s sole focus is mining enough of the magical ore known as Eternium to make a powerful crown that would grant him the powers of the demonic Sabbac. A young man named Teth-Adam is chosen by the Council of Wizards to become their champion and receive great power to combat Ahk-Ton; the subsequent battle destroys them both.

Or does it?

In the present day, much of this story has receded into Kahndaqian lore. The country is dominated by the global criminal syndicate Intergang. However, there are those who believe that the legends are indeed true. This includes the archaeologist Adiranna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), who puts together a team to locate and retrieve the legendary Crown of Sabbac. However, the search puts her and her team in grave danger, leaving her no choice to utter the words that will – she hopes – call forth the champion.

Adam (Dwayne Johnson) rises from his tomb and immediately dispatches the baddies. And then some more baddies. And then even MORE baddies. He’s so powerful and ruthless, in fact, that he captures the attention of some interested observers on the other side of the world.

Specifically, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official tasked with keeping tabs on the world’s metahumans. She enlists the help of the Justice Society of America – led by Carter Hall, better known as Hawkman (Aldiss Hodge) – to head to Kahndaq and neutralize the perceived threat. Hawkman puts together a team – the aging mystic Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and a pair of young legacies in the wind-controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and the size-changing Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) – to take Adam into custody.

It … doesn’t go great.

Adam, whose ideas of justice are very much informed by the black-and-white morality of his own time, proves to be a formidable foe without much in the way of empathy (though the presence of Tomaz’s young superhero-obsessed son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) might steer him in the right direction).

But when the Crown presents real danger to Kahndaq and its people, Adam must choose which justice to pursue – the idealized brand offered by the JSA, or the darker version from his own past.

Obviously, all the usual caveats need to be applied here – I’m always going to dig superhero stuff, it’s just who I am at this point – but as far as it goes, “Black Adam” is decent. As I stated earlier, it’s pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as DCEU offerings go.

(Pedantic nerd-note: So when I heard the Justice Society was going to be part of this film, I assumed we were getting a period piece – the JSA is very much a product of the World War II era – and was just a teensy bit disappointed that it wasn’t. A minor quibble that likely bothers me and me alone, but here we are.)

Considering the depth of the DC catalog, it seems a bit strange that we’d be headlining a film with this character this soon, but when you’ve got a guy like Dwayne Johnson leading the charge, that goes a long way toward making up the difference. Throw in the significant (and somewhat surprising) box office success of “Shazam,” and it all adds up.

As a film within the overarching framework of the DCEU, “Black Adam” is largely standalone. Other than a couple of notables, we don’t really encounter characters that we’ve already met (though there is one biggie that I won’t spoil). That allows for a bit more flexibility in bringing this character – with whom many audience members may be unfamiliar – to the forefront.

Action-wise, “Black Adam” is actually pretty brutal for a big-tent comic book movie. Black Adam kills a lot of dudes. Like, A LOT. And not just off-screen collateral damage – he does a bunch of superpowered murdering. Granted, they're pretty much all bad guys, but still. Not what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre.

In terms of narrative, it’s another example of these movies simultaneously doing too much and not enough. There are a couple of fairly nuanced themes that the filmmakers try to shoehorn in here, but they’re mostly lost in the noise. It’s all about getting from set piece to set piece, which is fine, except we’re dealing with a ton of new characters – a little more expository room would have been welcome.

Now, Johnson is clearly having a blast as he glowers his way through his portrayal of Black “The Rock” Adam. He’s finally getting his superhero run – and no, the “Fast & Furious” movies don’t count – and he’s here for it. The antihero stuff gets laid on a little thick, but it’s tough to fault him for going for it. And there’s no denying he looks the part. Plus, he wanted this SO BADLY, which also shows. All in all, it works.

The supporting cast is interesting. Shahi does great work even as she’s relegated to “normal person/woman” status; Sabonghui does a nice job as well. The heroes are solid. Hodge gives pretty good Hawkman – I expect the intent is for the character to have a place of primacy in the DCEU going forward. Pierce Brosnan’s constantly bemused Doctor Fate worked for me, even if I’m not entirely sure if it was an actorly choice or just Brosnan’s mild amusement at all this superhero nonsense. I could have used more of Swindell and Centineo, honestly; they’re good, but we don’t get to enjoy them all that much. Marwan Kenzari and Mohammed Amar also warrant notice, though it’s best I don’t say too much about their roles.

“Black Adam” is fine. Pretty good, even. You’ve got some good superpowered action sequences, a few decent sight gags and running bits and a charismatic lead performance from your title character. Sure, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense, falling prey yet again to the need for the ever-present MacGuffin, and there are a couple of efforts at commentary that are more than a little on the cringey side.

It's a big, loud superhero adventure. And sometimes, that’s all we need our movies to be.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 24 October 2022 10:44


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