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" I may be on the devil’s hit list, but I’m on Jesus’ mailing list. "
— Robert Duvall, The Apostle

MRQE Top Critic

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An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

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Black Adam is a setback for the DC Extended Universe’s efforts to rebound from a major identity crisis.

Tomb Raider

Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson)
Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson)

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Black Adam is what a messy mash-up it is. It pulls in characters from Shazam! (Djimon Hounsou and the Council of Wizards), (The) Suicide Squad (Viola Davis) and a whole bunch of big-screen newbs from the Justice Society (including a pretty cool Hawkman) all while mining the back story of a major addition to the big-screen pantheon, Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson).

What that all adds up to is a major disappointment after DC seemingly turned a corner by offering more refreshing alternative, sophisticated spins on lynchpin characters, particularly The Batman (with Robert Pattinson) and Joker (featuring Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning performance). Plus, there was James Gunn’s remarkably subversive The Suicide Squad, which took all those comic book tropes and smashed ‘em up but good.

Most recently, DC League of Super-Pets turned into a major summer surprise that was largely overlooked in theatres. That one packed in the smarts and wit with great vocal performances from a menagerie of stars, including Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson. But Johnson not only starred as Krypto, Superman’s superpup; for those who stayed through the credits, they were treated to Johnson’s (animated) debut as Black Adam in a terrific tease.

All of that goodness has been thrown to the wayside as Black Adam turns into an uncomfortable borderline-disaster that — as the madness bolts forward — feels more and more like a silly sequel to Justice League (pick your favorite flavor, the cringe-inducing Joss Whedon jumble or Zack Snyder’s pompous dirge of superhero banality).

No Kidding

If only one idea had been pursued with greater focus and integrity, this movie could’ve been interesting. The setting is Kahndaq, a Middle Eastern country credited with hosting the first self-governing people on Earth way back around 2600 BCE. A standout idea was floated in the middle of a conversation: Batman, Superman and all the other superheroes have shunned the troubled country. They look away as the downtrodden populous fights imperialist Intergang members who are there to terrorize the citizens and plunder the country’s crucial treasure: Eternium.

It’s an almost fresh angle on superhero ethics that sets the stage for the antihero that becomes Black Adam. Unfortunately, the script mangles the message. That shouldn’t be much of surprise when the co-writers of the effective true-life Guantanamo Bay story behind The Mauritanian, Sohrab Noshirvani and Rory Haines, are paired with a writer from Johnson’s video-game movie adaptation of Rampage.

The end result drops the important idea and goes on to whiff most of the attempts at subversive humor intended to make Black Adam something like Marvel’s Deadpool. It doesn’t help Johnson is tasked with displaying minimal acting range, with Black Adam coming across as nothing more than a monotone character lacking a sense of subtlety.

As the movie wears on, two big questions begin to fester. What kind of movie does Black Adam want to be? Who is it for? Both questions can be answered with one word: Unknown.

What’s worse is the end-credits tease. It presents a bad idea. A really bad idea that will (possibly) keep future productions linked to the bad blood of the Zack Snyder era. No. Please. No. With all the goodwill DC’s gained during the past few years, that tease is a major, intentional step backward.

Fate Smasher

Hawkman (Aldis Hodge)
Hawkman (Aldis Hodge)

You can’t stick a theme of non-violence in a movie centered around a character whose sole stock in trade is violence. He owns it. He loves it. He lives for it. And yet, that’s where Black Adam lands.

Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) is a tomb raider-type who doesn’t want her son to learn violent ways of dealing with problems. The kid turns into a skateboarding leader, but the kid is a bad actor. And that’s one of the other problems with Black Adam. The younger cast members don’t have the requisite chops to pull off the material.

With the Justice Society quickly thrown into the story, a slew of characters are introduced as if everybody knows who they are already, a strategy which backfires when it comes time to have to try to care about any of them. Leading the Justice Society are Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan). They have an interesting dynamic that doesn’t quite rise to a legitimate yin and yang, but it offers enough to wish there was more. They’re good, but the addition of Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) doesn’t work out quite as well. They’re reminiscent of the bizarre Power Rangers tone that figured into the conclusion of Shazam!

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

At one point, Black Adam was saddled with an “R” rating for its gobs of violence. Toning it down (and shortening the movie by perhaps as much as six minutes) still makes Black Adam a violent, profane hodge-podge.

To watch Black Adam is to be pummeled. It’s not just the act of Black Adam pummeling generic bad guys plucked out of central casting, it’s the nonstop drubbing that takes a toll on the viewer. That includes Lorne Balfe’s incessant score that fails to find any memorable new themes.

This kind of movie stops being fun when — ironically enough — all of that action fails to pack a punch. All the CGI in the world can’t conjure a sense of satisfaction when there isn’t enough reason to care.

Throw in tedious jokes about finding a new name for Teth-Adam (such a non-surprise), latching onto a catchphrase and — most importantly — learning how to properly use the catchphrase and Black Adam keeps finding newer, lower levels of pure sloppiness.

All of this makes Black Adam a feat of endurance; a related problem is the movie’s multiple endings, which turn into one false summit after another.