Black Adam Review: The Rock is Cooking

In what feels like the years-long lead-up to the release of Black Adam, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnston has touted that the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe was about to change. Now having seen the film, I’m not sure how accurate of a statement that really is but he certainly did deliver an entertaining spectacle with some interesting things to say about the nature heroes bound by a particular government. It doesn’t all work and its ideas frequently end up buried by the bombardment of battles, but it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie at least attempt to tackle what it means to be a hero when so many of them these days don’t feature anyone saving anyone. It helps that the battles are all mostly awesome as well.

Black Adam takes place in the fictional middle eastern country of Kahndaq which throughout its history has been under some form of oppressive rule. It’s currently under the military occupation of Intergang. While searching for an ancient artifact that could help free her people from their oppression, archeologist Adrianna is caught by Intergang and awakens Black Adam who goes on to massacre the Intergang troops. This gets the attention of Amanda Waller who sends the Justice Society of America to detain Black Adam. Their mission to defeat Black Adam is the center of the most interesting aspects of the film. Adrianna, her son, and the people of Kahndaq believe Adam to be their savior. The only powered being who will use his god-like abilities to help them while the Justice Society sees him as a murderous villain who needs to be stopped while ignoring the plight of the civilians around them.

From the minute Black Adam shows up, the film is almost nothing but action. There are some breaks to catch your breath and character moments but by and large, this is wall-to-wall superhero action. From Black Adam slaughtering Intergang to him fighting the JSA, it’s a cacophony of chaos in the best way possible. The action scenes are hard-hitting and frenetic. This is a film about godlike individuals exhibiting their power and it feels like that. It’s epic in scope and execution and while some of the CGI falters it’s mostly very good. I like Marvel movies but I’d be lying if I said all of their movies looked good, especially some of the more recent ones and it’s refreshing to see a 200-million-dollar movie look the part. It’s clear real effort and care were put into making sure the action looked as spectacular and bombastic as possible and they succeeded. Many of the set pieces will have you shoveling popcorn into your mouth with “badass” being the only word in your head. Simply put this film has a visual style and flair that few superhero movies do these days. There might be a little too much slow-motion but it’s certainly a step up from the many superhero movies that are shot like network sitcoms.

While the action is the star of the film, the real strength is what it has to say about the nature of American superheroics. Kahndaq is fictional but the plight of its people is rooted in reality. Kahndaq’s people looking to Black Adam as their hero while the Justice Society looks to him as a villain is a perspective not often taken in this genre. Some will distill the film down to its argument of whether superheroes should kill but that is simply a gateway to the film’s real argument on superheroes. So often we see superheroes based and rooted in American political ideals of heroism and they go around the world as military agents with little thought given to what that means.

In Black Adam, that’s challenged. When Hawkman makes a point that heroes don’t kill, the film isn’t just debating whether heroes should kill, it’s arguing about the nature of superheroes bound by an American ideal that doesn’t do anything to save those it doesn’t care about. Amanda Waller sends the JSA to Kahndaq not to be heroes and liberate an oppressed people but because she sees Black Adam as a threat. There’s a scene where Hawkman stops Black Adam from killing two members of Intergang and the citizens of Kahndaq boo him for it. Not because they think heroes should kill but because he is enabling their oppression through further inaction. It’s in those moments that Black Adam rises above its schlocky action extravaganza to become something a lot more interesting. It’s a shame that a lot of the time those moments get lost in the explosions, as great as those explosions may be.

Many of the character interactions also play into this idea but even beyond that, the characters in this are strong for the most part. Johnston is a stone-cold badass as Black Adam and the supporting players are all able to keep up with the most charismatic man on the planet. The Justice Society all range from good to great. Pierce Brosnan is a standout as Doctor Fate. He’s equal parts charming and wise and he brings great pathos to a character cursed with knowledge of the future. His chemistry with Aldis Hodge’s Hawkman is wonderful and gets you to buy into the fact that these are men who have been friends for a long while and have been on countless adventures together that we didn’t get to see. Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell both do well as Atom Smasher and Cyclone respectively. They’re the most underutilized characters by far but they make the most of it and would be welcome additions to any future DC film.

The film’s biggest problem is the main villain. The conflict between Black Adam’s status as the heroic liberator that the people of Kahndaq need and potential threat to the JSA’s idea of justice is strong. That conflict provides not just an interesting framing for the film but real grey area morality that gives the punching more of a punch. So when the climax becomes a standard superhero CGI battle it disappoints. Not because the battle is bad, it’s fairly entertaining as far as these things go, but because it isn’t rooted in the conflict of the movie we’re more invested in.

Once Black Adam gets going it rarely puts on the breaks but when it does it offers an examination of superheroes trapped not by what it means to be a hero but by what it means to be a hero rooted in American justice. The action is great but it’s moments like Adrianna chastising the Justice Society for sitting idly by while her people have been oppressed and only arriving when they deem something as their problem that give Black Adam its real power. It’s just a shame that it so often puts those moments aside in favor of non-stop action, though that action is worth the price of admission.

Rating: Cruise Control

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Published by Matt Fresh

30% Water, 70% James Bond movies. Matt is a writer, gamer, film enthusiast & silly person. The winner of various fictitious awards, he's fluent in English & pop culture references.

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