Black Adam is the superhero film for people who’ve had enough of them. Or it wants to be. Full of familiar elements given a dry witty twist, it stars Dwayne Johnson as an immortal creature who returns to his native city of Kahndaq to save the citizens of a brutally colonised Middle Eastern city in their hour of need.
So far, so King Arthur, though Black Adam, whose name is Teth Adam at this point, is actually more like the mummy from The Mummy Returns (an early foray into acting by Johnson, all those millennia ago) crossed with the terminator from The Terminator.
The Terminator comparisons gain weight when Teth Adam takes up with a streetsmart kid called Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) keen to give the recently constituted demigod lessons in branding: “Catchphrase – then kill!” Amon advises, after Teth Adam gets it the wrong way round – and Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), Amon’s mother, a Swarfega-scented Linda Hamilton-esque badass in cargo pants.
The first third of this film is thrilling and funny, as Adam arrives on the scene, kicks every kind of butt in every kind of way, forges his alliances (uneasy) with Amon and Adrianna and Jaume Collet-Serra reminds us he’s a fantastic action director – he did some great geri-actioner movies with Liam Neeson (including Run All Night and Non-Stop) – while charging through all the routine elements a film like this needs. There is lore (an ancient crown that will make its wearer more powerful than any of us can know). There are bad humans (stubbly and sneery). There is dialogue of the “your magic is weak” variety. There are slo-mo bullets and lightning fast entrances and exits. There is the use of left-field music from days of yore. Everything is familiar. More than familiar, but Collet-Serra serves it up hot and fast.
The last third of the film is the big showdown between Teth Adam and a deity summoned from hell by the crown of Sabbaq, this film’s rings of Shen Zi, powerstones, one ring to rule them all, and it is entirely missable in a seen-one-seen-them-all-superhero face-off-finale kind of way.
It’s in the middle third that things get interesting and the familiar plot waters are disturbed by the arrival of an outfit called the Justice Society, a rules-based force of superhero peacekeepers headed by Dr Fate, a Magneto-meets-Dr-Strange eminence played by Pierce Brosnan.
He’s accompanied by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and apprentice superheroes Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell).
Though Dr Fate, Hawkman, Atom Smasher and Cyclone get no real introduction or backstory, they’re there a) to help build out a DC cinematic universe (god help us), b) stop things looking too much like a Terminator movie, and c) to allow a face-off between the globalists and the nativists – if Dr Fate, all cosmopolitan savoir-faire, might have been played by George Soros or Bill Gates, does that mean Teth Adam is going to be Donald Trump? Good Adam or Bad Adam?
It makes for a scrappy story but a fascinating ideological struggle as the Justice Society attempt to convert Teth Adam to their way of thinking. But the gentleman is not for turning, or not easily. He’s been brooding about all this for 5,000 years, after all. And by this point in the proceedings Teth Adam has also learned all about quips and sarcasm and is able to dish out snappy ripostes as well as receive them.
None of the Justice Society is particularly well drawn but at one point, by way of a getting-to-know-you, Cyclone asks Atom Crusher what his super power is. “I grow,” he replies. “Cool,” she says, keeping her eyes fixed firmly on his face. At another Dr Fate appears in a silk dressing gown and cravat wearing what appear to be his jimjams underneath. I don’t know what that’s all about.
Black Adam is a fun film packed with good stuff that only gets boring when it tries to be exciting – which is the last third. Through it all Dwayne Johnson remains beetle-browed, massive, mighty and impressively tight-lipped in his line delivery. It’s his show. He owns it all. Chalk another one up to the Rock.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022