One argument made in Hollywood has always been about casting unknown actors as popular characters, to temper audience expectations and allow them to enjoy the character, and not the actor, brought to life.
And it has brought about fresh actors who subsequently make the character their iconic own, and no genre exemplifies it more than in superhero films, from Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill as Superman, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.
So what happens when you take one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and puts him in a cape and suit?
Black Adam may not be as well known as Batman or Spider-Man to non-comic book readers, but neither were Iron Man or Black Panther before their movies were made, and after this latest outing from the tumultuous DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film franchise, there’s an argument to be made that casting a star of Dwayne Johnson’s stature might be the way to go, to save a franchise.
Created as an adversary to Captain Marvel aka Shazam in the funny books, Black Adam aka Teth Adam has undergone a transformation from mad villain, to becoming a sympathetic anti-hero. Banished for over 5,000 years, his return to the modern world has seen him be an adversary to popular heroes or ally to villains, but always as a protector to his people of Khandaq.
And while he’s not the first anti-hero to have his own movie, director Jaume Collet-Serra shows how you can harness the darkness in a man, and still make him relatable, unlike in earlier shoddy attempts including Venom and its deplorable sequel, Punisher or Morbius. Like a policeman expected to shoot and kill a criminal to save lives, Black Adam kills. He electrocutes, disintegrates, maims, obliterates, pulverises and otherwise tells you that if you do bad things like harm innocents and children, and bullies, he will come for you.
So when he is released from his prison after so many years, he ends up killing a bunch of criminals on the hunt for Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), a Khandaqui national intent on preventing the villainous criminal organisation Intergang from subjugating her country any longer. To her, Black Adam is the legendary hero from ancient times who saved the country from an evil emperor, and has returned to liberate the country and its people once again.
Perhaps societies of the past weren’t as enlightened, and killing was considered acceptable, and after several brushes with Intergang trying to locate Adrianna, her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), in comes the Justice Society of America, comics’ first and original superhero team, to try and stop the new supernatural force from tearing up the planet.
Referred to as the Justice Society, the current group comprises well-known DC Comics’ heroes Hawkman aka Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) and Doctor Fate aka Kent Nelson (Pierce Brosnan), along with younger heroes Cyclone aka Maxine Hunkel (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher aka Albert “Al” Rothstein (Noah Centineo).
Up at this point, you better know your comic book characters and their powers because very little time is spent explaining that Carter Hall is a Thanagarian warrior with the ability to fly, or that Kent is in possession of the Helmet of Fate, a mystical artifact that, when worn, makes him one of the most powerful sorcerers in the universe. Maxine has the ability to manipulate wind while Al can alter his size and density.
Naturally, their combined might is not able to stop Teth Adam, who has no intention of being a saviour but does want to save Amon, who is suspected of being in possession of a demonic crown made of the rare mineral, Eternium. Yes, there is a lot to unpack in this 124 minute film, and the rather flat looking CGI effects takes away from the grandiose setting, of seeing superpowered beings slug it out.
A lot of the movie’s charm lies on the broad shoulders of Johnson, who discards his affable, muscleman persona and goes full blown villainous with his complete disregard for laws and life. Collet-Serra, who worked with the star on last year’s Jungle Cruise, knows to always zoom in on the star’s stoic mug as he’s about to make a point, but never lingering long enough for the smirk to appear, until the very last scene in the film. There’s just enough for Teth Adam to unleash his hatred, anger and charm, to make us believe that, as the Justice Society says, he’s a menace, but also that he’s the one you want batting for your team in a fight.
The Justice Society’s theatrical live-action debut is both appreciated, but under-focused on, as too much is spent on the exchanges between Teth and Carter, and the banter between Carter and Kent. Meanwhile, Maxine is almost invisible as she blows through scenes in slow motion, as a few lingering seconds will make her seem more interesting, while Al is the token gag in the group, trying to be taken seriously but blowing it almost every time. Yeah, we need to talk, Al.
The weakness of the film lies solely in the rather weak script that doesn’t at any moment make us believe that Teth, who is never once referred to as Black Adam in the film, is at risk of succumbing to any foe. Even as audiences learn why Teth is so reluctant to be the hero, since he wasn’t, as history recorded, the one selected by the wizards, including Djimon Hounsou in a cameo as Shazam, to be the hero of the people.
And while Amon tries to be the teen character for audiences to relate to, newcomer Sabongui is out of his league as his Amon is a stubborn child so lucky to be alive. Towards the end, when he rallies those around him, you can’t help but cringe at the combination of poor writing, directing, and acting that simply makes you want to reach out and unleash some of Black Adam’s rage at that portion.
While this film might not necessarily shift the hierarchy of power in the DCEU, it does set the stage for a massive showdown as SPOILERS AHEAD the post credits scene has Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) refer to Teth as Black Adam, before attempting to show him what he’s in for, should he step out of line, and in comes Henry Cavill aka Kal-El in full costume, as Superman returns.
While appearing but never fully seen since 2017’s Justice League, this marks Cavill’s first appearance in the red, blue and yellow in a really long time, and as the trades indicate, this was done at the behest of Johnson, a long time Superman fan who is keen on making a Black Adam vs. Superman film in the future. The DCEU has been through a rough decade of missed opportunities, and slip ups, with the occasional game-winning play but this end-credits is a great soft reboot of the massive franchise, and while Black Adam the film might not be the hero audiences need, the film sets up a premise that many of us want to see.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam is a flawed, at times messy, but also engaging film that comic book fans want from the anti-hero. In a way, the movie shows that it doesn’t need Superman to succeed, even though it does. *cue wink*
Story - 7/10
Direction - 7/10
Characterisation - 7.5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8.5/10