DC Films hits another nadir as it drags Dwayne Johnson through a CGI hellscape.
We’re officially in the third decade of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being a movie star. The former WWE legend made his cinema debut in the forgettable sequel to The Mummy, where he’s introduced as the dreaded Scorpion King, one of the most infamous early CGI debacles. Special effects have since improved, along with Johnson’s abilities as an actor and charismatic leading man. However, it feels like now we’ve come full circle with DC’s Black Adam.
The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, coats the film in so much modern CGI blandness you’ll be begging your God for the Nintendo 64 graphics of The Mummy Returns just to experience something instead of being bludgeoned into a coma with digital ones and zeroes. Collet-Serra also steals from other DC film directors with no return on investment. That includes using Zack Snyder’s hyper-slow-motion style during every action scene and trying to copy James Gunn’s ear for great needle drops with a bizarre choice to use the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” more than once. He should know the song has been retired from films since 1987.
Based on the comic series by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck, Black Adam starts 5,000 years ago in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Kahndaq. There a slave named Teth Adams gets electric superpowers and immediately uses them on his oppressors. Unfortunately, it proves not enough, and they defeat and imprison him. Five millennia pass before Teth is freed from his ancient prison. He finds himself in a modern Kahndaq that’s still occupied land. Mercenaries calling themselves Intergang rule the city with guns and fear. Adam, fueled by wrath and unlimited powers, tries to serve some justice, inspiring the gang’s leader, Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari), to pursue those powers for himself.
If you stay awake long enough, some interesting ideas are trying to laser their way out of the perplexing script by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani. Not many superhero projects take place almost entirely in a Middle Eastern setting (Marvel’s Egypt set Moon Knight is a recent example), and there is something to a Superman-like figure taking their righteous anger out on the occupiers in his homeland. Alas, the script gets too bogged down in DC Universe homework and numbing action set pieces to dig deep.
The moral quandary it tries the hardest to tackle is also the least interesting choice. A gang of superheroes called the Justice Society (the poor man’s Justice League, I guess) tries to stop Adam from administering his brand of justice because they say it’s wrong to kill anybody. It’s hard to defend this position, though, when the people Adam kills happen to be vicious mercenaries who murder innocents and steal the country’s resources. It’s also hard to defend a modern-day comic book film tackling the “are superheroes bad people?!” question when movies like The Dark Knight have addressed it more nuanced and sophisticatedly.
[A] movie with no laughs, heart, or anything tangible to grasp.
The Justice Society consists of a group of characters with similar powers to much cooler superheroes. Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) is like Anthony Mackie’s The Falcon, but lamer. He also arguably has more screen time than Johnson gets in his own movie. As fantastic Hodge played Jim Brown in Regina King’s One Night in Miami, hes’ one note here. He mostly acts scandalized that Black Adam may have to kill bad people to protect his home country.
Then there’s Pierce Brosnan as the Dr. Strange stand-in, Dr. Fate, who can manipulate reality and telepathically project anywhere he wants. He can also sort of predict the future, so take that, Strange! Rounding out the useless crew is Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who can get really big like Ant-Man, and the vibrant Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), who has powers similar to another weather-powered mutant you can probably guess.
Getting to anchor a superhero franchise is a big step forward for Johnson, but it requires taking away everything we like about him. You would think a movie with him in the center playing a God-like figure wouldn’t need a huge ensemble of other heroes. Still, the film does exactly that, giving Johnson less screen time. When on-screen, he’s stuck doing a take on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s soulless robot from Terminator 2. He’s a dour, empty vessel out of time and place who only gets comfortable with the modern world thanks to a spunky skateboarder kid named Amon (Bodhi Sabongui).
I know he’s been trapped for a while and is a merciless killing machine. So it understandably makes sense that he’s a little cranky. However, the man doesn’t get to smile until the very end of this thing. He must play every scene so seriously to the point of grimness. His lightning bolt-blazoned suit highlights his giant pecs but traps his magnetism as a performer. He has more soul and depth as the voice of Superman’s dog in League of Super-Pets.
There’s also the problem every Superman film runs into. With an invulnerable main character, creating any kind of stakes is a challenge. Sure, like kryptonite for Supes, and Black Adam has a weakness for lightning. But unless it’s cloudy outside, it’s hard to believe he will struggle killing endless amounts of bad guys. Maybe if DC weren’t cowards and kept Black Adam rated R, it would at least be a violent curiosity. Think of it as a Deadpool that’s been sitting out in the sun too long. Instead, we get a movie with no laughs, heart, or anything tangible to grasp. Like the Stones’ song, this movie shows us its insides and its heart is black.
Black Adam changes the power hierarchy in theatres starting on October 21st.