At the 2022 Venice Film Festival, Harry Styles said his favorite thing about the movie “Don’t Worry Darling” is that “it feels like a movie.” Though seemingly identifying the obvious, Warner Brothers’ new feature film “Black Adam” proves that some movies do not actually feel like a movie and, instead, run like a two-hour trailer.
“Black Adam” inducts Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, built like a real life superhero, into the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) as the titular Black Adam — except no one calls him that. Instead, the brooding behemoth goes by Teth Adam, and he’s not like other heroes.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Black Adam” is the kind of movie that would be predictable if the plot wasn’t borderline incoherent. The lore is senselessly complicated, but in broad strokes: 5,000 years ago, Adam lived in Kahndaq under the tyrant Ahk-Ton (Marwan Kenzari), who created the power-endowing Crown of Sabbac for ultimate domination, but a young enslaved boy harnessed the powers of Shazam (don’t ask) and successfully overthrew the unjust ruler.
In the present day, Kahndaq struggles under a new oppressor called the Intergang. When archeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) summons Adam from his 5,000-year slumber, he violently slaughters throngs of Intergang troops and attracts attention from the upstanding Justice Society who try to bring Adam into custody.
Adam’s propensity to violence supposedly distinguishes him from other sunny, selfless superheroes; in the dread-laden DCEU, however, he fits right in. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” presented invincible superheroes as hyper-nihilistic and indifferent to human suffering, a far cry from the cornball and quippy characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The darkness that thematically and visually bulldozes “Black Adam” clashes with the Rock’s natural, formidable charisma. The closest “Black Adam” gets to levity is one shoe-horned moment where the 5,000-year-old super god discovers sarcasm. But the film doesn’t let the Rock roll and represents Adam as a sentient fist whose single human connection, Adrianna, is the only obstacle to him becoming a sociopath. By neutering the Rock’s charm and flooding his character in senseless plot soup, “Black Adam” creates a viewing experience akin to a hangover without the joy of getting drunk.
“Black Adam” seems to suffer from its own superhero fatigue. The Justice Society — Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) — nags Adam to be more like a real superhero, more like them. Yet, it’s hard to take the group seriously when the characters are nakedly derivative from other movies.
Similar powers aren’t the problem; “Black Adam” approaches character creation with indifference. The script lets Brosnan float, caution and advise like a diet Doctor Strange and encourages Centineo to smirk, grow and shrink like Ant-Man in a tacky bondage suit. Unmotivated to bring anything new to its characters, “Black Adam” fizzles like flat soda.
The film stages fight scenes with cartoonish hyperactivity and a frenetic attention span. Yet, Adam is too powerful to lose, so the combat sequences have no stakes. Adam won’t even nurse an injury when Atom Smasher pummels him into the ground or when his freshly-decked body tumbles through the sky for miles.
The use of slow motion is incessant and eye-numbing. It’s a unique form of masochism that swaddles viewers in a suffocating blanket of noise while Johnson’s neck vein throbs as he eviscerates a soulless, CGI-ejaculated army. The fight sequences huff with the sound and fury of a kid playing with action figures during a sugar rush, fingertips encrusted with Fun Dip.
At the San Francisco screening, the man introducing “Black Adam” hollered, “Where my Rock fans at?”, which, in retrospect, is the gimmick of the movie. But not even the Rock can salvage the DCEU or redeem Collet-Serra’s lifeless feature. While the film’s post-credits scene teases a feud with an iconic DC hero, the more merciful fate for Black Adam is a blackout.