‘Black Adam’ Is a McDonald’s Hamburger
Dwayne Johnson is one of the most charismatic personalities in mainstream entertainment, and by all accounts seems like a fine fella. He’s been working to get a Black Adam project, featuring the thousands-of-years-old DC antihero and his wizard-bestowed powers, off the ground since 2007, and one must applaud anyone for that level of tenacity. It is therefore regrettable to report that the movie is not particularly good.
It does have moments of value here and there, and out of respect to Mr. Johnson and his halo of goodwill, I am eager to elucidate on those points. But there’s no point in denying the 270-lb wrestler in the room: even within the realm of the superhero genre, this is an ephemeral motion picture, lacking depth, originality, or storytelling panache. Much like a McDonald’s hamburger is technically food, Black Adam is technically a movie, and both can be intermittently enjoyable before you come around to ask “why am I consuming this?”
Our story begins 5,000 years ago in the ancient realm of Kahndaq, a vaguely Egyptian (or maybe it’s Sumerian?) place described as the first civilization. Its tyrannical king has enslaved his own people to mine for a substance called Eternium, which we know is important because it glows blue. One day, a slave boy possessing some of this mysterious substance is saved from the King’s executioners by a cabal of wizards, who bestow upon him magical powers and a password to access them: Shazam!
Yes, this is similar to the lore of Captain Marvel and the recent movie, Shazam, but the charmed acronym is derived from different sources mythological. (You can do some compare and contrast here.)
Anyhow, this new hero defeats the king, but afterward he ends up in some kind of pocket dimension tomb for his troubles. Cut to today and a band of renegade archeologists/Kahndaqian nationalists led by Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), her associate Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari), and her jovial Jack Black-ish brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) believe they have discovered a crown made of Eternium that could unite the people of Khandaq during a time of political oppression.
Kahndaq, you see, is a stand-in for not-Iraq/not-Afghanistan under longtime occupation by not-America, but a band of villainous swine called Intergang who plunder the nation’s resources and make the people wait at long checkpoints. They also zoom around on sci-fi skiffs that glow blue (just like Eternium!) and really want that crown.
Soon Adrianna summons the trapped hero, Teth-Adam, who is the gargantuan Johnson wearing a superhero suit and a scowl. Bullets and missiles and grenades can’t stop him, and a mere touch of his hand can turn someone into a skeleton. He goes on a wild PG-13-style kill spree, flinging bodies thousands of yards in the air and ripping off limbs, but without any blood, terror, or agony. It’s definitely entertaining for a while, and Johnson’s natural magnetism is on broad display.
With all this sudden violence erupting in Khandaq, Viola Davis’s security agency head Amanda Waller (she has appeared in a number of DC movies already) is eager to restore order. She doesn’t represent Intergang’s interest per se, but sees a need to “maintain peace,” so she sends in new some superheroes, the Justice Society.
Black Adam is a character from deep within DC Comics lore, but don’t feel like you need to have any background knowledge going into Black Adam. Blessedly, there is very little tie-in with the rest of DC’s “cinematic universe.” Indeed, what is refreshing is how the new characters, the expanding but never-before-seen group the Justice Society, simply show up. We skip all the typical “origin story” detours, and the effect is like tuning into a Saturday morning cartoon for the first time even though it’s been on the air for a while.
This is, perhaps counter-intuitively, Black Adam’s greatest feature. Unlike the maudlin, turgid comic book movies from Zack Snyder, whose Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a master class in how to make something ostensibly for kids as boring as humanly possible, Black Adam just zips along, trusting that the audience will catch up. It recognizes this is a movie for young people, and if adults want to watch, too, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t expect anything too deep.