Warner Bros’ slow, tortured mishandling of its DC Comics characters continues with Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam. Dwayne Johnson was confirmed to play the titular anti-hero all the way back in 2014 (having circled the property since late 2006) and the confused and inconsistent mess that has emerged is typical of an over-developed production. Maybe there was a coherent film being developed at some point, but those days are long gone. Black Adam reeks with the stench of too many executives pissing in the punch to make it taste better for too many years.
5,000 years after he was granted the powers of the gods, Teth-Adam (Johnson) is resurrected in modern-day Kahndaq – a Middle-Eastern state controlled by the criminal organisation Intergang. His arrival is met by the Justice Society – Dr Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) – who have arrived to capture Adam and prevent him from threatening the world.
As a lifelong fan of DC Comics, it was a joy to see Hawkman and Dr Fate in a big-budget feature film. Both characters were well realised, and solidly performed by Hodge and Brosnan. It is worth getting that praise out of the way up-front, because there is nothing else in the film to recommend.
The screenplay is generic and lazy, plotted to hit action sequences rather than to tell an interesting story. It has a poor handle on its title character, who originated as a villain for Captain Marvel (aka Shazam) but who is very tenuously linked to that hero’s movie adaptation. It makes a superficial effort to make some sort of political statement about how superheroes tend to fight giant robots and psychic alien starfish when they could be liberating oppressed developing nations from criminal regimes – but fails to understand that acknowledging this problem tends to make superhero narratives collapse. On top of that it does not to engage with the issue even after it has raised it – the occupying Intergang regime is effectively ignored once computer-generated demon arrives on the scene. There is also the issue of making a superhero protagonist an Arabic man – which is in itself a bold, laudable move – but then casting a Hawaiian in the role.
It honestly does not quite know what to do with Black Adam himself. He is a powerful ancient being when the script remembers that he is. At other times, generally random ones, he may as well be from 21st century Los Angeles. Within 20 minutes he is practising catch phrases with his young human sidekick. Adam is presented as an amoral and violent figure, and it is certainly impressed on the audience that he must be stopped, but then his story is also packed with comedic bits about accidentally murdering criminals and henchmen. Johnson’s flat performance does not help: he just feels like the Rock, wrestling superstar, wearing a superhero outfit. Once again it just seems lazy.
So do the computer-generated effects, that are over-used to the point of stupidity. They give everything a weirdly fake sheen. It all seems entirely artificial, and therefore dramatically meaningless. Lorne Balfe’s musical score ticks the standard boxes of the effects-driven blockbuster, although he appears to have unintentionally duplicated Ron Grainer’s theme to The Prisoner (a 1967 TV series) in the process. An early action sequences misuses the Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black” in a stupefying manner.
The DCEU is in sorry shape, following years of indecision, poor story choices, and a relentless obsession with grim, gritty takes on the most frivolous of heroes. Producers James Gunn and Peter Safran were recently hired to reboot and rework the entire extended franchise, and goodness knows the characters need it. This film – situated partway between a vanity project and a stealth bid to rework DC – is definitely not the way to do it.