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‘Black Adam’

by Piers Marchant | October 21, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.
What’s cookin’? Dwayne Johnson gets a turn portraying a DC super(anti)hero in “Black Adam,” the costumed comic-book character debut of Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra.

Serviceable, though junky, superhero fare from DC, still trying to find a steady groove in its cinematic universe. Starring Dwayne Johnson as the antiheroic counterpoint to the far better-natured Shazam fella (you can tell, because Johnson's super-enhanced body is covered in a beat-up looking black costume, complete with a ratty, hooded cloak), "Black Adam" more or less plays the hits you would most likely expect, amid extended bouts of exposition, several quips (some amusing; some not), lots of CGI battles, and Johnson's money-making half-smirk.

The film is set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Kahndaq, which, as the film's requisite skateboarding sidekick, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), explains, has long been held under the strong arm of one imperialist army or another. Currently, it remains under control by something called the "Intergang," which seeks a long-lost secret crown of power, in order to take the city over by -- you guessed it -- the "six demons of the ancient world" (as always, DC really loves its demons).

Standing in the way of such nefariousness is Black Adam, a protector of the city from several millennia ago, reawakened when Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), a historian trying to protect her people from the latest occupation, reads a sacred text aloud. Restored from his magical imprisonment, Mr. Adam proceeds to lay waste to the invaders, and nearly everyone else in his path, which triggers a response from the illustrious Ms. Waller (Viola Davis), somehow still head of the superhuman task force in the U.S., who quickly puts together a team dubbed the Justice Society -- consisting of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone (Odelya Halevi), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, who looks and sounds so much like a young Mark Ruffalo, I was convinced he was related) -- to set him straight.

The film, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, and glossed to a car-showroom sheen, occasionally makes vague gestures at more political substance -- the Justice Society (there to promote what team leader Hawkman calls "global stability") is rightly reprimanded for only bothering to show up when Kahndaq finally has their own slightly twisted superhero (personal motto: "Make your enemy beg for mercy, then deny it to his final breath") to protect them -- but mostly the screenplay, by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, takes the paths of least resistance at every opportunity (Black Adam, buried for 5000 years, emerges speaking perfect colloquial English, as does seemingly every citizen of Kahndaq, for example), leaving nearly all of the heavy lifting to the CGI artists to whip something interesting out of their scripted banality.

Visually, the film is all over the place as well, though Collet-Serra opts to display much of the violent battles in super slow motion (evidently the way the hyper-speeded Black Adam sees things), which, on the positive side, does at least allow for coherent action sequences, but, on the less positive side, also grants us repeated viewings of Hawkman leaping at his enemies with his mouth agape, a trick that never seems to work very well.

Part of the problem here is the lack of character development (for the uninitiated, Hawkman, in particular, never makes a ton of sense, despite the laborious voice-over exposition we're subjected to at the rest of the team's introduction), but there also seems to be a dearth of imagination -- by the end, we end up in yet another battle for the planet from a bunch of deep-voiced demon gods -- and a sense that the filmmakers were perfectly content giving us exactly what we might have anticipated, and very little else. It's like a dull slasher film where all the jump scares are so badly telegraphed, you barely notice when they happen.

Still, there are moments for DC aficionados to thrill -- fan service, as always, remains at a premium for these flicks -- and enough of Johnson's comic timing to keep the film from being total dreck, but there's not much to see here you haven't already endured many times before. Lighter on its feet than the Zack Snyder-verse, it still doesn't feel as if the DC Extended Universe has its cinematic bearings just yet, though the mid-credits scene (at which point, the fans at the screening I attended whooped it up like somebody just scored a game-winning goal) at least suggests they have more in store for the character. Whether or not you see that as a good thing is solely a matter of personal preference.

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