The most notorious anti-hero in the DC Comics Universe gets the big-screen blockbuster treatment with Dwayne Johnson bringing to life BLACK ADAM the Wizard Shazam’s first champion and the Justice Society expanding the DC Cinematic Universe
These are dark days indeed! If you’re a fan of the big movie blockbusters, the pandemic has forced the studios to come up with innovative ways of filling seats at the multiplex, and only the most devoted movie enthusiast has braved opening day weekends in an effort to make an impact on the success of their franchise favorites. Warner Bros. the studio that owns the DC motion picture and television properties hasn’t necessarily cracked the code that has led to the competitor’s unparalleled success at the box office. The most recent release of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and its largely positive reviews have guaranteed its #1 movie status, and unfortunately eclipses the other superhero film also vying for attention.
Warner Bros. released BLACK ADAM starring Dwayne Johnson as the titular DC anti-hero in theaters wide on October 21. It grossed $67 million opening weekend, higher than expected; a respectable opening indeed it outperformed many of its DC Cinematic Universe contemporaries, but it still fell a little short of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever which brought in $181 million. In an effort perhaps to inflate its potential, Black Adam was released this week on digital download platforms ahead of its premiere on the parent company’s streaming service, HBO Max. Even with its lukewarm reviews and audience approval ratings, the action film lacks a spark and doesn’t bring Warner Bros. any closer to toppling Marvel’s reign, but it does set some interesting storylines in motion.
The announcement of Black Adam as a theatrical contender and entry into the DC Cinematic Universe surprised many longtime fans. The casting of Johnson as the primary adversary of Billy Batson’s alter-ego Shazam! was not! The one-time wrestling personality turned Hollywood A-lister had long chased after the property and when the film was green-lit, Johnson immediately took to social networking to tease his audience about what he might look like as the ebony-clad lightning bearer, Teth Adam, whose own profile and popularity have increased since the character’s introduction in The Marvel Family comic books in 1945. The wizard Shazam’s “first” champion has ruled his own country, endured immortality and has fought against and alongside DC power players, even challenging the Man of Steel himself.
First, for the uninitiated… The origins of this one-time “big bad” have emerged into a much more complex character play in the Modern Age of comics in large part to comics legend Geoff Johns’ involvement with the antagonist, who played a very big part in the revitalized history of its arch nemesis. The aforementioned Billy Batson, the teenager who becomes endowed with the power of six mythic legends when he says aloud the name of the wizard “Shazam!” is chosen at the time of great calamity to become the world’s champion. At another point in history, in the North African nation of Kahndaq, Teth-Adam emerges as that country’s champion warring against a corrupt pharaoh who imprisons Black Adam, only to have him reemerge in our own contemporary time.
In the feature film directed (and co-written) by Jaume Collet-Serra, when Teth-Adam (Johnson) is released from his eternal slumber, he is summoned by an archaeologist named Adrianna Tomaz (played by Sarah Shahi) who is chasing after a mystical magic item, the Crown of Sabbac which is also coveted by the merciless para-military organization named Intergang, which is occupying Kahndaq. Intergang is using advanced weaponry powered by a rare mineral, the same material that the Crown of Sabbac is made of. Legend has it that whoever dons the Crown of Sabbac will become as powerful as six of the most powerful demons in hell. Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari) intends on unleashing the power for himself to sit on the throne of Kahndaq and rule with an iron fist.
The political upheaval central to Kahndaq has played an important part role in the DCU, which is not surprising when Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) the director of the black-ops agency known as Task Force X, tasks Carter Hall (played by Aldis Hodge), the Hawkman with leading a team of the Justice Society of America into the foreign nation to bring Black Adam into custody. Among Hawkman’s roster of heroes are the JSA's newest recruits: Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), who can manipulate wind, and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) who can grow in size and stature. The trio is joined by original JSA member, Doctor Fate, brought to life on the big screen by Pierce Brosnan wielding the mystical helmet of Nabu which makes him one of the most formidable individuals on the planet.
Let the Brawl Begin
it becomes apparent, fairly quickly, Black Adam isn’t necessarily the “major threat” that Waller sets him up to be. In fact, Teth-Adam is quickly regarded as a champion to the people of Kahndaq, and the JSA are perceived as interlopers — exerting their overreach, after largely ignoring the nation’s predicament under Intergang’s control. There’s a bit of an awkward moment when, Black Adam is morally distraught over the perception of being a “hero” and the citizens of Kahndaq salute him forming a triangular symbol with their hands, their arms extending toward the heavens. It’s meant to resonate as similarly as the crossed forearms of Marvel’s Wakanda Forever salute, but it doesn’t have the same appeal — it falls flat and isn’t very authentic. In fact, Black Adam borrows a couple of notes from Black Panther…
Whether complimentary done or strategically lifted, they just don’t have the same read as in the Marvel Studios film. And although there’s no denying the intimidatingly spot-on presence of the film’s star, Johnson doesn’t demonstrate the depth and texture to make Black Adam a hero whom you want to align yourself with. Sure, that’s expected given Black Adam’s nature as an anti-hero, but Johnson has proven that he does have an emotional well to draw from and the skill to enliven his roles. Even his attempt to win over the JSA’s Hawkman and Dr. Fate isn’t as genuine as you’d want it to be — these characters just aren’t popping off the page and play too closely to their 2-D counterparts. The junior members of the team, Cyclone, and Atom Smasher are more suitably tailored for The CW than IMAX.
During the film’s confrontation with the fully realized, evil incarnate of Sabbac, Black Adam feels like a WWE cage match, reminding us of the arena where Dwayne Johnson established his cred. The often-timed Snyder-esque slow-motion moments are also nice and connectively interesting, but really unnecessary.
Black Adam has a lot of heft, mostly in the huge action sequences and combat moves, but the conflict is more video game than Avengers: Endgame — the stakes just don’t feel as big and the collateral damage is just that — damage! It’s exciting, to say the least, that Black Adam most effortlessly contains elements that connect it seamlessly to the extended DCCU with nods to The Suicide Squad (with a little Peacemaker to good measure), Justice League, and even though it’s a stretch to Aquaman, and then there’s the in-credit cameo that resurrects Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel but the most obvious connection is largely non-plus. Without a doubt, audiences would absolutely welcome the inevitable Black Adam v. Superman but first, we have to see him face off against Shazam! and the rest of the Marvel Family.
The Golden Age heroics and casting of the Justice Society of America are also interesting here and will undoubtedly lead to a second round with Black Adam, but unless those characters get a far more rounded-out subplot to play in, they’ll just come off as window dressing, and that would be truly disappointing. The thing that Black Adam does do well is the set-up that in the Warner Bros. world of DC comics properties, a combined cinematic universe is possible, and deeply inviting — it’s just got to be done right. Black Adam exhibits the signs of that very important entry point, though it’s unfortunate in that the film lacks significant substance, and is the least a sizable distraction heading in the wrong direction.
DC’s BLACK ADAM | starring Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Shahi, Pierce Brosnan, Aldis Hodge, and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra is now playing in theaters and is available for streaming on most digital download platforms.