‘Black Adam’ Review: Heroism, but Paint It Black

Dwayne Johnson stars in this overstuffed superhero film about an ancient figure granted god powers.

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By Maya Phillips

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Behold: the proselytizing superhero film! Listen as it cautions against moral absolutism! It is not the hero movie we need but, thanks to what’s now a tradition of beloved comic book stories shazam-ed into empty Hollywood schlock, it is the hero movie we deserve.

Which brings us to “Black Adam,” a dull, listless superhero movie that hits all the expected touchstones of the genre under the guise of a transgressive new antihero story.

We begin with a briskly delivered tragic back story involving a magical demon crown, a gaggle of wizards and a people’s rebellion in an ancient land called Kahndaq. We then skip forward 5,000 years to modern-day Kahndaq, a poor yet futuristic country that, for generations, has been under siege by various mercenary groups. Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), an Indiana Jones-esque Kahndaqi professor turned artifact hunter, is searching for the aforementioned diadem of doom, with help from her bumbling brother, Karim (Mohammed Amer), and hero-obsessed son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui).

Adrianna summons Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson), the champion of ancient Kahndaq who was granted god powers by the same sorcerer who — surprise! — transformed the teenage Billy Batson into the red-spandex-wearing capester Shazam (Zachary Levi) in that 2019 DC action-comedy.

But Black Adam has some rage issues and an inconvenient habit of zapping baddies to death with his lightning powers, so of course, according to the rules of superhero franchises, a superteam must unite to confront him: Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a meek genius in colorful threads who can manipulate the wind; Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), a rookie hero who’s just trying his best; Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), a Doctor Strange type in a knight helmet; and Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), the leader of this so-called Justice Society of America (not to be confused with the Justice League of America).

Afflicted by the all-too-common Overstuffed Hero Movie Syndrome, “Black Adam,” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, flies past exposition and speeds through character introductions and back stories — for those who even get back stories — leaving us with a hero epic that fails to build emotional stakes or vivify its characters enough to make us care.

At least we’re promised gritty no-holds-barred action, right? Think again: That promise is mercilessly broken with an orgy of crude special effects set to an intrusive, tonally idiosyncratic score including the Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” (Because he’s Black Adam, get it?)

And if you thought the time of action movies using slow-motion as a crutch was over, “Black Adam” has bad news for you. Even fight scenes with resurrected hell demons and villains torn in half like sheets of loose-leaf are rendered yawn-worthy and downright juvenile.

It doesn’t help that our antihero is as exciting as, well, a flying rock in a cape. Johnson floats through scenes with his furiously furrowed brow and an expression stubbornly frozen between consternation and confusion. He, and the film, can capture neither the seriousness nor the humor it aspires to; Johnson attempts to cover up his signature lighthearted comedic delivery with a stony deadpan that sucks all levity from each scene he’s in.

Centineo and Amer are saddled with the responsibility to provide comic relief as goofy sidekick types, but both hit the same flat notes. Adam’s comedic beats, on the other hand, are limited to his lugheaded responses to the other characters’ coaching on proper hero etiquette (“Catchphrase, then kill,” he repeats densely after Amon).

The hero tips are essential to the film’s pontificating about justice and its lumbering setup of Adam as the alternate hero for an age that requires more nuanced codes of integrity and more aggressive action. Heroes like Superman and Aquaman are out being saviors, but they have conveniently overlooked Kahndaq, Amon says to Adam, suggesting that even the world’s finest do-gooders can be selective and unfair when it comes to fighting evil.

“There are only heroes and villains,” says Hawkman, a character who, despite Hodge’s solid performance, is unbelievably saddled with this reductive mind-set; that way, the movie can remake the same point it spends two hours repeating. “The world doesn’t need a white knight; sometimes it needs something darker,” Doctor Fate says, presenting the film’s thesis — which, by the way, was more eloquently expressed 14 years ago in “The Dark Knight.”

If, as the credits roll for “Black Adam,” you’re still stuck wondering what defines a bad hero or a good antihero, know that at least the film clarifies one thing: What makes a bad hero movie.

Black Adam
Rated PG-13 for bad guys meeting violent, untimely ends. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.

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