Review: Dwayne Johnson’s 30+ Years of Charisma Shine in Black Adam
3.5/5 Lightning Bolts
Right now, there is likely no more significant action movie star than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It was only a matter of time before he became a fixture of one of the big superhero franchises, but DC got him as the titular Black Adam—a man born a slave who gained the power of the gods to become a champion to the trampled-upon people of Khandaq. At least, that is the story we’ve been told.
Modern-day Khandaq is under the control of Intergang, an influential DC comics crime syndicate with New Gods technology. Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) is a professor of a resistance group who, along with her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and others, are attempting to retrieve the crown of Sabbac to prevent its power from going into Intergang’s hands. They are ambushed during the retrieval, and Sarah wakes Teth-Adam, the powerful Champion of Khandaq.
His release signals Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and she orders the Justice Society to retrieve and capture him. The Justice Society of America is made up of Kent Nelson’s incarnation of Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Maxine Hunkel’s Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), Albert “Al” Rothstein’s Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and leader Carter Hall’s Hawkman (Aldis Hodge).
If Black Adam has any issue, it is the pacing. Because Adam must fight two forces and go through character arcs with both, it does lead the film, in typical comic book fashion, to rush a bit through the film’s final act. Yet, I found that it didn’t lead to dragging, just a knowing, “Oh, they are going to wrap this up quickly.”
I recently went back and watched Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in many ways, Black Adam is pulling from the best aspects of those films. The titular character is very different from our usual superhero ilk. Black Adam kills in this movie. While the rating is PG-13, the film does not handwave the violence of having an anti-hero in the driver’s seat. It reminded me of what it would be like if T’Challa and Thor had a baby, and that baby had Thor’s personality from the first film. That even works because his character is actively trying to inspire and empower the people of Khandaq and fighting people who have invaded and colonized their resources.
Black Adam feels relevant despite having entered development in earnest as early as 2017. Khandaq may be fictional, but we are shown a Middle Eastern nation stifled by centuries of oppression, imperialism from outside forces, and an inability to use their resources for their gain. This is also one of the few comic book movies to feature MENA actors playing MENA characters who are not exotified, fetishized, or infantilized. The character Adrianna Tomaz is a mother and a freedom fighter and gets to be a massive part of the action despite not having powers. During an interview, Shahi told me that she saw the character as a mix of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, which comes across beautifully in the movie.
There is a great moment when Adrianna calls out the JSA for coming to take Adam for being too dangerous when they have allowed Intergang to take over her country completely. As someone who sometimes complains about the lack of politics in comic book movies (since comic books have been political since the beginning), it’s nice to see it making a stand about something tangible, especially today.
Overall, my complaints about Black Adam are minor. The narration at the start feels a bit clunky, and I would have preferred for the film to trust its audience more. But then again, it is throwing fictional terms and characters at folks and following up Shazam, which came out in 2019, so maybe a refresher is in order. The needle drops in the film are jarring because the music choices are so clichéd.
The young boy character of Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) will be divisive. Still, I found the character to be endearing, and considering that a target demo will be young kids who have loved Dwayne Johnson in several Disney and family-friendly flicks, this will be their little avatar. Every member of the JSA is fun, and especially Dr. Fate and Hawkman get some great moments, but Cyclone and Atom Smasher can feel like filler despite their charm. The slow-mo was solid around 75% of the time, and the fight scenes felt less like a bad episode of Dragon Ball Z—mostly because Dwayne Johnson is good at selling all of it.
Ultimately, Black Adam is fun, fresh, and big enough to stand up even while suffering from origin-story-itis. When I spoke to Johnson about the film, he talked about how deeply he cared for his character, of seeing someone with brown skin in a morally complex superpowered role. There is no denying that he brings the kind of star power magnetism to the position you hire a big star for. No fault in the movie is his. He gets it 1000%, and as someone who has been following him since the WWF era, it is an excellent solidifying of a legacy of performance, charisma, and badassery. Dwayne Johnson is one of our most incredible action stars, and that is fully captured in Black Adam.
Black Adam arrives at a strange place for the DCEU. It is the first canonical project released in theaters since the pandemic (remember, The Batman is not officially part of the DCEU canon). It has been sandwiched between two scandal-heavy projects for Warner Bros. Discovery and will set the stage for this merger’s future. And if its end-credits scene is an indicator, the future is aiming for something big.
(featured image: DC/Warner Bros.)
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