Does the world need a hero, or someone less afraid to get their hands dirty? That’s the (moderately intriguing) question that infuses the otherwise formulaic comic-book movie “Black Adam” with a measure of … something. Gravitas? Grit? Grandiloquence? Whatever you call it, it does not lie at the heart of the film. What does is the same molten core of rock-’em, sock-’em hokum we’ve come to expect from almost every other film of this ilk. Rather, it hangs over the CGI-heavy proceedings like a brooding shadow, cooling and darkening the overheated action just enough to make things interesting.
This being an origin story of the title character (Dwayne Johnson), a nearly 5,000-year-old former enslaved person with powers beyond those of any mortal, the film sets the stage with a complicated and turgid prologue (one that is entirely necessary for all except the most invested fans of the DC Comics franchise from which Black Adam has sprung). Opening in the fictional land of Kahndaq, somewhere in the Middle East, judging by terrain and other cultural clues, in the year 2600 B.C., the film introduces us to a man, then known as Teth-Adam, who has been given superpowers – strength, speed, flight, the ability to channel lightning-like electricity and withstand projectiles – by a bunch of wizards harnessing the energy of a local mineral called Eternium. Activated by uttering the word “Shazam,” an incantation that turns on and off Adam’s powers like a switch, a champion rises up to defeat the evil king of Kahndaq, and then goes promptly back to sleep.
Please don’t stop reading. This is the condensed version.
Fast-forward to more-or-less the present day, or perhaps the near future – one in which the residents of a modernized Kahndaq have been oppressed for 27 years by a cabal of violent imperialist mercenaries known as the Intergang. An underground group of Kahndaqi partisans, led by a former academic named Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), is seeking a long-buried relic, but so is the Intergang. In the squabbling process, they awaken Adam.
Despite having been napping for five millennia, he ain’t happy, and proceeds to slaughter a mess of Intergang goons, in slow motion, in an early special-effects set-piece choreographed to the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” Okay, it’s pretty cool, especially if you like explosions. But full disclosure: This is not my favorite version of Dwayne Johnson, all grumpy and murderous. Soon enough, Adam quickly learns the ropes of being a superhero, thanks to Adrianna’s comics-obsessed teenage son (Bodhi Sabongui), who even gives Adam a catchphrase he’s instructed to utter just before he kills his victims: “Tell them the man in black sent you.” (Yes, it needs work.)
Sarcasm is something Adam picks up from Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), a wry wizard and poor man’s Doctor Strange who is a member of something called the Justice Society, composed of superheroes Hawkman, Cyclone and Atom Smasher (Aldis Hodge, Quintessa Swindell and Noah Centineo, respectively) Think of it as NATO, but with superpowers; they say they’ve been called to Kahndaq to protect “global stability.” In trying to get Adam to work with them, they teach him about teamwork. To which Adam replies, in a voice dripping with derision, that he loves teams (not).
Now that Dwayne Johnson is more like it. It’s hard to suppress the guy’s charm, so casting him in “Black Adam” seems counterintuitive.
Here’s the thing: Adam is not the film’s hero, despite his name being on the marquee. He shoots lightning bolts out of his fingers first, asks questions later. But in this movie – in the context of a nation oppressed by an occupying army, with checkpoints and other losses of freedom – it dares to suggest that someone who skirts the bounds of morality may be just the person Kahndaq needs.
Make no mistake: “Black Adam” proceeds with predictable action sequences, tiresome fight scenes and the now-requisite sacrifice of a major character. But it’s that seasoning of radical politics – the theme, expressed in the film as a question of whether freedom fighters should have to play by the rules of war – that gives it a bit of spice. Whether that’s enough to set “Black Adam” apart in a world that already arguably has too many superhero movies, is unclear.
Put another way: The question is not “Does the world need Black Adam?” but “Is the world ready for him?”