Is the world in dire need of a hero or someone who is less afraid to do dirty work? This is the moderately interesting question that infuses “Black Adam”, a comic-book movie about a formulaic superhero, with a little bit of…something. Gravitas? Grit? Grandiloquence? It doesn’t matter what you call it, but it is at the core of the film. It does however contain the same molten core rock-’em and sock-’em hokum that we have come to expect from nearly every film of this genre. It hangs instead like a brooding shadow over the CGI-heavy proceedings, cooling down and darkening the overheated action just enough for it to be interesting.
The origin story of the titular character (Dwayne Johns), a nearly 5-year-old ex-enslaved man with superpowers beyond the reach of mortals, opens the film with a complex and turgid prologue. This is necessary for anyone who has not been invested in the DC Comics franchise that Black Adam hails from. The film opens in Kahndaq (a fictional Middle East land), in the year 2600 B.C. It then introduces us to Teth-Adam who is given superpowers by a group of wizards using the energy of Eternium, a local mineral. A champion rises to defeat the evil Kahndaq king by saying “Shazam”, an incantation that switches on and off Adam’s powers. Then, he goes back to sleep.
Now fast forward to the present or near future, where the inhabitants of modernized Kahndaq were oppressed by the Intergang, a group of imperialist mercenaries. A Kahndaqi underground group led by an ex-academic named Adrianna Shahi is looking for a long-buried relic. However, the Intergang is also involved. They awaken Adam through their squabbling.
He’s been sleeping for five millennia, but he’s not happy. He proceeds to kill Intergang goons in slow motion in an early special effects set-piece choreographed according to the Rolling Stones song “Paint It, Black”. It’s quite cool, especially if your favorite thing is explosions. Full disclosure: This Dwayne Johnson isn’t my favorite, it’s all grumby and murderous. Adrianna’s teenage son Bodhi Sabongui, who is comics obsessed, teaches Adam the ropes of becoming a superhero quickly. Adam even gets a catchphrase that he must use before he kills his victims. (Yes, it takes work.
Adam learns sarcasm from Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who is a wise wizard and poor man’s Doctor Strange. He is part of the Justice Society which consists of super-heroes Hawkman and Cyclone. They also teach Adam about teamwork. Adam responds, with a voice full of derision that he doesn’t love teams.
Dwayne Johnson seems more like it. It’s difficult to resist the charm of this guy, so casting him as “Black Adam” seems counterintuitive.
The thing is that Adam isn’t the film’s hero despite his name being on a marquee. He shoots lightning bolts from his fingers first and asks questions later. This movie, set in the context of an oppressed nation with an occupying army and checkpoints, dares suggest that Kahndaq may need someone who stray from the boundaries of morality.
It’s clear that “Black Adam” is filled with predictable action scenes, tedious fight scenes, and the obligatory sacrifice of a significant character. It’s the seasoning of radical politics, which is expressed in the film as the question of whether freedom fighters should be required to follow the rules of war, that gives the film some spice. It’s not clear if this is enough to make “Black Adam” stand out in a world already filled with too many superhero movies.
Or, to put it another way: It is not “Does this world need Black Adam?” rather “Is this world ready for him?”
Theaters in the area. This film contains scenes of intense violence, violent action and coarse language. With subtitles. 118 minutes.