Black Adam (2022, Jaume Collet-Serra)

Black Adam opens with kid narration. At first, it seems like the narrator kid is Ancient Kahndaqi Jalon Christian, who’s sick and tired of living under a tyrannical king who has his people mining eternium for him. Eternium is not a “Masters of the Universe” thing; it’s more like the DC Universe version of vibranium. Except not really, because it doesn’t do anything. They set it up like it gives people superpowers, but… no.

But the narrator is not Christian because the flashback’s not in English. The present-day Kahndaqi people all speak English (and are apparently a Christian Middle Eastern nation-state in the DC Movie Universe—they’re Muslim in the comics, but the movie people don’t have the stones to make sympathetic Muslims).

Anyway. The narrator is Bodhi Sabongui. His mom is renegade university professor Sarah Shahi (dressed like a less objectified “Tomb Raider”); she’s trying to keep Intergang from getting all the Eternium. Including a magic crown, which we saw in the prologue. The evil king wants to be a demon lord and needs the crown, but then the people’s hero comes to stop him.

In the comics, Intergang was a criminal organization in Metropolis who gave Superman trouble. In Black Adam, they’re Blackwater, except they’re called Intergang. And they’re committing war crimes daily, but there’s no United Nations to send Jean-Claude Van Damme and whoever in the DC Universe. Instead, there’s the Justice Society, and they don’t give a shit about Intergang committing war crimes. They’re about maintaining the status quo, globally speaking.

So when Shahi resurrects Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson from his tomb to save her from a bunch of bad guys, Viola Davis calls Hawkman Aldis Hodge to go keep the West’s oil interests safe or whatever. The first act of Black Adam—besides the introduction to the superhero team, which is basically just an X-Men sequence (or Deadpool 1)—is a little like Terminator 2. Sabongui is going to teach Johnson it’s not okay to kill people. Except, not really, because Sabongui’s country is being occupied by a criminal organization who made speeder bikes because they really liked Tron. It’s a complicated situation and might need Johnson’s killer instincts, which Pierce Brosnan realizes, but no one listens to him despite him being a hundred years old with a magical gold helmet to tell him the future.

Now, I really hope Davis gets two million dollars a minute in these movies on the condition she films on her iPhone in the bathroom, but Brosnan’s hacking through this movie. He gets some energy when he’s opposite the other actors, including Hodge, who’s an intentional charisma vacuum (he’s playing the straight edge who gets in the Rock’s way), and especially Johnson. Still, Brosnan looks exasperated with all the superhero business.

So, interesting casting choice.

Quintessa Swindell and Noah Centineo play the young superheroes. Centineo is a legacy hero and a lovable, slightly dopey bro. Swindell has a way too intense origin recap, seemingly just so she can privilege-check Centineo. Black Adam’s got three credited screenwriters, but it feels like Many Hands contributed. Because despite that first act “young John Connor and his pet Terminator” setup, the second act’s mostly a superhero fight movie. Johnson’s dealing with the mercenaries while Hodge tries to stop him and let the mercenaries go back to killing civilians.

But there’s also the magical archeology subplot with Shahi and then the secrets of Johnson’s origin story.

The movie’s got a surprisingly effective plot structure. Director Collet-Serra front-loads the best action sequences, set to either pop songs or scene-appropriate selections; the rest of the action’s middling, occasionally a little better. Johnson turns on the charm a little earlier than he should—narratively speaking—but the movie needs it, and he obliges.

Oddly catchy score from Lorne Balfe; it’s not particularly good, but it earworms all right. The special effects and technicals are all competent, though there’s way too much going on in the third act without enough actual content. Characters have big, action-packed story arcs just to delay them from participating in the main plot. It’s weird. They also use a lot of slow and fast motion effects to distract from the finale’s limited scale.

Johnson’s the whole show and he’s much better than anyone else in the movie. His closest competition is Brosnan and Brosnan’s not close. Centineo and Swindell are likable, but in a TV show supporting cast sort of way (which is appropriate since they’re TV show supporting cast). But Shahi and Sabongui—occasional affability aside—aren’t good. And whatever Hodge is doing isn’t working.

With some very specific caveats, Black Adam’s far from a fail.

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