‘Black Adam’ Is Two Hours of Superhero Soup

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson's passion project throws every element from every well-received superhero feature into the pot. The resulting slop is for fans only.

Warner Bros

For Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the 10-time WWE World Champion who became the most bankable star in Hollywood, Black Adam has been a Holy Grail. Johnson first threw his name in the ring to play the C-list DC character in 2007, and was officially cast in the role back in 2014. For the longest time, the only thing anyone knew for sure about Black Adam is that The Rock was dead set on making it, continually hyping his arrival on the cinematic scene for over a decade. After years of false starts — and multiple attempts by Warner Bros. to retool the DC Extended Universe into a Marvel-killer — Black Adam finally arrives in theaters this weekend, and Johnson would have us believe that it’s the vanguard of a new era for DC, one guided by his own creative vision. To which, having seen the movie, I can’t help but reply: “What vision?” Black Adam is two hours of cinematic soup, the ultimate statement from the god-king of movies that everyone sees but no one remembers.

BLACK ADAM ★1/2 (1.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan
Starring: Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani
Running time: 124 mins.

Let me establish that I was not born a hater for this particular product. I’m a superhero comics fan, as well as an off-and-on wrestling fan, and I have no small amount of respect for Dwayne Johnson as an irrepressible human Brand. Like many legends of wrestling, he’s a promoter first and everything else second, and he’s one of the greatest ever to live — that’s how he became the most prosperous sports entertainer of all time without being a good wrestler, and then the highest-paid movie star of all time without being a good actor. He’s a craftsman of charisma, a world-class carnival barker who’s also his own sideshow. And, for the past decade, Johnson has been promoting himself as the savior of the struggling DCEU, trying to make Black Adam into his Iron Man by brute force. Hell, it might even work. But if it does, it won’t be because Johnson and his hand-picked director Jaume Collet-Serra (with whom he made last year’s Jungle Cruise) have brought anything new to the superhero movie recipe. It’ll be because they’ve replicated the success of KFC’s Famous Bowls: completely emptying the pantry, tossing in every element from every well-received superhero feature in equal measure, and convincing enough people to chow down on the resulting slop.

Black Adam is the story of Teth-Adam (Johnson), an ancient champion from the (fictional) Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq, endowed with nearly limitless power by the guardians of Earth’s godly magic. (These are the same wizards behind his counterpart, Shazam, whose movie is a lot better than this one.) Reawakened in the present day, Adam finds that his homeland is now occupied by Intergang, a stateless military company who are only the latest in a string of Western invaders to oppress the people of Kahndaq. For his part, Adam doesn’t really care that much. “I’m not a hero,” he says, and will continue to say over and over for the next few hours. What he is, however, is a ruthlessly violent killer who extinguishes anyone who crosses him with the gory extravagance of a Mortal Kombat finisher, and since he starts dishing out his bloody vengeance against Intergang, he instantly becomes a national hero. This earns him an enemy in the Justice Society, an American superhero group that is staunchly non-lethal and refuses to leave Kahndaq under the protection of a mass murderer. Much of the film revolves around Adam and the Society fighting each other over the fate of the nation, as well as a magical MacGuffin that represents a greater threat than either of them.

Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate (l) and Aldis Hodge as Hawkman in ‘Black Adam.’ Warner Bros.

This isn’t necessarily the logline for a bad movie, in fact on paper it’s sort of interesting. But Black Adam’s potential evaporates, along with any sense of a cohesive tone, in a jumble of visual, tonal, and thematic elements that simply cannot coexist. It’s edgy and gritty, but also surprisingly joke-dense. There’s some of the speed-ramping and slow-motion glamor shots from Zach Snyder’s DC movies and some of the Looney Tunes comedy violence of Deadpool. There’s the high-chroma comics-accurate costume design of Shazam!, and the dull as dirt beige VFX action of the lesser Marvels. It features a wall-to-wall “epic” superhero score from Lorne Balfe, interrupted only by on-the-nose, semi-ironic needledrops a la Suicide Squad. (I imagine the filmmakers are now wishing they hadn’t set a pivotal moment to Kanye West’s “Power.”) There’s the anti-colonialist rhetoric of Black Panther, but also a gleeful sense of “might makes right” that reeks of fascism, despite an obvious attempt to disavow it in the film’s final minutes. There are individual scenes, individual moments of action and even characters that actually work, but as a whole, Black Adam is a tangled, cluttered mess.

As much as it feels descended from Every Previous Superhero Movie, Black Adam also owes a lot to Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Adam is revived by Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), a daring archeologist and freedom fighter who’s also the single mother to a rebellious young son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui). There’s an attempt to duplicate the Terminator/Sarah/John Connor dynamic, with Johnson playing an invincible but humorless death machine and Sabongui as the kid who teaches him to lighten up. Sometimes this pays off, but these are the moments in which Johnson lets slip the brooding Teth-Adam and allows a bit of the Rock to show through, and these jokes feel more like stitched-in outtakes than character development. But Adrianna is barely a character, and rather than develop her or Bodhi effectively, Black Adam dedicates its few scenes of non-expository dialogue to the Justice Society’s Hawkman (Aldis Hodge, who’s always game), Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan, who’s collecting a check), and young trainees Cyclone and Atom Smasher (Quintessa Swindell and Noah Centino). As much as the comics fan in me enjoys seeing the Justice Society as an intergenerational family of superheroes, their screen time comes at the expense of the characters who the movie is actually about.

Years of manufactured excitement for the event of Black Adam may tempt you to check it out, despite these criticisms. If you’re a DC or DJ devotee, I’m sure I couldn’t dissuade you anyway, and I get it. I’ve seen every single Marvel Studios movie on or before opening weekend, a streak I don’t plan on breaking. This is a movie for undiscerning viewers of superhero cinema. If this isn’t the sort of movie you like, there is absolutely no chance that you will enjoy it. If this is the sort of movie you like — by which I mean “big budget superhero comics adaptations set on the continent of Africa whose titles begin with the word ‘Black’ — there’s another one of those coming out in a mere three weeks that will almost certainly be better. The Rock says “Save your money.”

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Black Adam’ Is Two Hours of Superhero Soup