While the Marvel Cinematic Universe veers off in countless strange and indulgent directions, the DC Extended Universe sits suffering from a glaring identity crisis. What exactly is the DCEU? Who’s running the DC ship? Is there a roadmap? Which movies and what characters are a part of it? There was a time when I could answer those questions, but not these days. It’s all so convoluted and confusing, which is frustrating considering the iconic characters in their catalog.
Zack Snyder had a well defined blueprint he was following. Unfortunately, his vision was “too dark”, “too gloomy”, and “too serious” for many who cut their teeth on the MCU. That, along with the Joss Whedon debacle and a considerable amount of studio meddling, insured that Snyder’s vision would never be fulfilled. So here we are, still wondering where they go from here. Sure, DC Films has put out some incredible movies (“The Batman”, “Joker”, etc.) that aren’t connected to their extended universe. But what about the DCEU?
Enter Dwayne Johnson and “Black Adam”, a pairing that attempts to bring balance and (more importantly) direction to the DCEU. The engrossing superhero epic “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” aside, “Black Adam” is the first DCEU film since 2018’s “Aquaman” that genuinely feels a part of something bigger. I’m not knocking smaller and more individual projects, but a sprawling universe needs interconnectivity and continuity. With “Black Adam”, it looks like the DCEU is finally ready to deliver that once again.
One of the film’s biggest strengths was also one of its biggest question marks – Dwayne Johnson. The wrestler turned movie star brings loads of influence and notoriety to whatever film he’s in. But he also has a truly larger-than-life personality which begs the question: would we be able to see beyond Dwayne Johnson to see Black Adam? The answer turns out to be a resounding “Yes”, and it’s in large part due to Johnson himself who gives a lights-out performance. He’s surprisingly restrained, intense and menacing, and slyly funny in some good moments of levity.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by the trio of Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, “Black Adam” quite intentionally avoids heavy exposition within its origin story framework. The most we get comes in a prologue where we’re taken back to 2600 BC. In the country of Kahndaq, a despot named Anh-Kot enslaves his own people, forcing them to mine for a mysterious metal called Eternium. The corrupt king wants the metal to forge the powerful Crown of Sabbac, but the people revolt. Legend says a champion named Teth-Adam was granted the power of Shazam which he used to kill Anh-Kot and free Kahndaq.
In the present day, Kahndaq is oppressed by a high-tech organized crime syndicate called Intergang who are seeking the location of Crown of Sabbac. Knowing the dangers if Intergang gets its hand on the Crown, archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) tracks the artifact to a secret chamber deep in a mountain. It also happens to be the tomb of Teth-Adam. When she and her team are ambushed by a squad of Intergang soldiers, Adrianna recites an inscription that summons Teth-Adam himself (Johnson), an incredibly powerful being who immediately slaughters all of the Intergang soldiers.
With Adam’s arrival, the people of Kahndaq believe they have finally found their champion. But his powerful presence is discovered by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a ruthless government official who dispatches the Justice Society of America to apprehend him. With a team consisting of the Nth metal empowered Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), a master sorcerer Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the wind controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who can grow enormous heights by manipulating his molecular structure, the JSA set out for Kahndaq.
A big chunk of the movie operates within an interesting moral gray space as it wrestles with the questions: is Adam the hero longed for by the people of Kahndaq, or is he a dangerous villain who needs to be taken into custody? They’re questions that shape the very battles between the JSA and Adam as well as their inevitable team-up later on, once a more sinister threat arises. The movie offers no easy answers. Adam’s willingness to brutally kill his enemies clearly poses a problem for the JSA who are much more by-the-book. But where were the JSA and earth’s other heroes during Kahndaq’s centuries of oppression? This opens up some of the film’s deeper themes. And things only get more complicated as facts of Adam’s past come to light.
All of that makes for the kind of compelling dynamic that superhero movies rarely engage these days. But make no mistake, this is a popcorn genre film through-and-through. “Black Adam” is the epitome of ‘action-packed’ with Collet-Serra putting together several terrific set pieces. Every character gets their moment to shine, with Hodge’s Hawkman and Brosnan’s Dr. Fate making intriguing new additions. But this is Black Adam’s show. Johnson energizes things with his magnetic antihero grit and gnarly kills which push the PG-13 rating, yet are still very much in tune with his character.
In its noble effort to avoid the usual origin story trappings, “Black Adam” bypasses a lot of meaningful backstory, leaving us with a few too many questions. I was hungry to know about the Justice Society, and what is Waller’s connection to them? That said, “Black Adam” does a admirable job introducing new pieces and charting new courses for the DCEU, all within a mostly self-contained story. Obviously those quick to roll their eyes at franchise-building or DCEU movies in general will find plenty to nitpick. But “Black Adam” accomplishes everything it needs to. It offers big action and cracking new characters. It puts its own unique stamp on the superhero origin story. And it sets the DCEU on an exciting new trajectory. “Black Adam” is now showing in theaters.