Not long after “Black Adam”, a pre-teen boy looks at Dwayne Johnson’s muscular hulk and begs for his help: “We could use a superhero right now.” He speaks for you, boy.
Do we need another superhero with another twisted origin story that dates back thousands of years and fulfills a crazy destiny? Do we really need another handful of secondary level heroes to focus confusedly? We are nearly 40 years deep in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a dozen deep in the DC Universe. You can almost smell the fumes now, can’t you?
“Black Adam” isn’t bad, it’s just predictable and color by number, stealing from other films like an intellectual property supervillain. But Johnson is natural in the lead role, mixes power and humor, and is able to deliver those wood lines you need. The reason he hasn’t had a starring role in a DC or Marvel superhero movie until now is surprising: come on, he’s already transformed into a goddamn superhero in street clothes.
Like Marvel’s “Eternals”, “Black Adam” comes off the blocks very slowly with the intricate narrative of our setting: Kahndaq, a fictional Middle Eastern realm in 2,600 BC that has wizards, a bloodthirsty king, a magical crown and Eternium. , a rare metallic mineral with energy-manipulating properties (Hello, Vibranium from “Black Panther”).
Flash-forward to the present day, where Kahndaq is under the cruel rule of the organized crime syndicate Intergang and its citizens are ripe for revolt. They think they may have a leader in Black Adam (here Teth Adam, when introduced), who is released from his 5,000-year-old grave and is naturally irritable. Is he a positive or a negative force? (Or for a new sub-franchise?) The answer is yes to all.
Yet the other DC pantheon superheroes aren’t sure about the new guy and send in what can only be described as the Muscle Plan B by the remaining members of an imitated organization called the Justice Society of America.
There’s Doctor Fate (a one-dollar Doctor Strange played by Pierce Brosnan, who somehow maintains his dignity), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, who plays nicely a loser and always hungry giant), Aldis Hodge as Hawkman. and Quintessa Swindell as Cyclone, who can control – control the notes – the wind. Apparently they left the superhero at home with the ability to open jars.
Black Adam is more than a match for all of them put together. He can fly, move at The Flash’s speed, capture rockets, deflect bullets, and harness his own bluish electricity. Mostly he does this strangely passive thing of floating. “I kneel before no one,” he intones, which might explain it.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra and the design team do a great job in every department, but are disappointed with a derivative and broad script by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani that goes from one violent scene to another like a video game for paper on both undercooked and overcooked texture. At one point, with the audience exhausted from all the carnage, they introduce skeletons that rise like a legion from hell, just what we wanted.
They nicely include pockets of humor that DC hasn’t always done well – a recurring piece with “Baby Come Back” and teaching Black Adam satire are fun; a Clint Eastwood gag fails and there may have been three natural endings piling up before the final, manipulative one. (“This can only end one way,” the script says. Don’t believe it.)
Between the superhero punches are two humans: a rebellious leader and his preteen son who loves skateboarding and comics, superbly played by Sarah Shahiby and Bodhi Sabongui respectively. Comedian Mohammed Amer is much needed lightning-fast humor.
The most intriguing thing – and the most fruitful corner to lean on – is the notion of the hero himself. Justice Society members are shocked to find that they are not seen as heroes for Kahndaq residents, who live 27 years under oppression. Black Adam came to the rescue, even though he is a little more violent. Residents wonder where the guys with all superpowers were for nearly three decades while they suffered – a big blow to Western nations.
“There are only heroes and villains. Heroes don’t kill people, ”says a confused Hawkeye. Black Adam replies, “Well, I know.” It’s Shahiby’s character who notes that it’s easy to call someone a hero when you draw the line.
The number of – ahem – references to other films is pretty grim – “Tomb Raider”, “Back to the Future” and a lot of “Star Wars” (even, inexcusably, the phrase “You are our only hope”.) film that is sometimes self-aware, like when the boy urges Black Adam to come up with a slogan that will sell lunch boxes.
He does, but it makes little sense: “Tell them, ‘The Man in Black sent you.'” He wait, was he sent by someone else? Do they mean Johnny Cash? It may actually be a clue. What the filmmakers probably had in mind was cash: to sell those lunch boxes.
“Black Adam,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release that hits theaters on Friday, is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, intense action, and a little bit of language. Duration: 124 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents are strongly advised. Some materials may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits