movie reviews

‘Black Adam’ review: Rock-solid fan service

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Black Adam’ review: Rock-solid fan service

Warner Bros. Pictures

'Black Adam' is an action-driven film that knows it is in service of the fans, which means plenty of spectacle and a focus on entertainment with a capital E, for better and worse

This is a spoiler-free review.

One of the most iconic (and meme-worthy) quotes from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the press build-up for his almost 10-year passion project is that Black Adam will change the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe.

Indeed a ballsy claim, no less coming from one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. Some saw it as a dig at Superman, the golden boy of DC, who would now apparently play second-fiddle in terms of super-strength levels compared to the Shazam anti-hero. 

Then, Johnson came out again and said his film would mark a “new era” of the DC Universe. He later clarified in an interview that he, along with the entire cast and crew, would usher in this change by “listening to the fans…and doing our best to give the fans what they want.”

In many ways, Black Adam does listen to the fans, and because of that simple reason, it feels like the most disruptive DC film in decades. Disruptive not because of its disorderly and incongruent parts but for its sheer dedication to producing an entertaining, action-driven film that leaves little room for extreme divisiveness. It’s a safe film, for better and worse.

DC fans deserve this kind of fan service after everything they’ve been through. And because the marriage between fandom and comic book movies is almost always a rocky one, this should be considered some sort of a minor miracle. 

The film nevertheless leaves much to be desired regarding pacing, tonal consistency, and scriptwriting, perhaps because of the constant pandering to fans. Black Adam ultimately succeeds at doing what most sustainable franchises have always done: creating a passable movie that does not vehemently anger most people (me included). 

Does that make it a better film? Hell no. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a better representation of the equivalent of action figures being clashed by a child who knows only of the pure exuberance derived from seeing super-powered individuals face off against each other. 

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The story starts with an exposition dump about the history and world of Kahndaq, the ancient city that the enslaved Teth Adam considers his home. After gaining the powers of the Gods and being hailed as the champion of the people, he uses his powers for vengeance and is subsequently imprisoned for it. Nearly 5,000 years later, he’s freed from his entombment and wreaks havoc in his own twisted way.

Now seen as a threat to the world, the Justice Society of America or JSA, consisting of Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), join together to subdue him. As it turns out, the city of Kahndaq embraces him once more as their champion as he administers the cruel sentence of death on the military occupiers of the nation using his unparalleled superhuman strength.

Strangely, Black Adam’s persona has the air of an authoritarian leader from a third-world country. His whole mythology is built around a lie, and yet he is cheered for his displays of machismo and extrajudicial killings. Coincidentally, the JSA is seen as an unpopular foreign invader who has never shown much aid or attention to Kahndaq throughout history, much like colonial forces and international peacekeeping forces. 

This intermingling of interventionist rhetoric and the shaky politics of savior narratives could have been a solid foundation that fits the theme of Black Adam being a central figure in blurring the line between good and evil. Unfortunately, there’s just too much going on in this film that even its most interesting commentaries get lost in the fold. 

Whenever there’s a moment where you’d think the film begins to tap into its vaguely Middle Eastern-based politics, it pulls back and then never says anything about it later on. A nation embracing an anti-hero is a fruitful conceit that can draw from multiple vantage points in real-life (just take one look at Brazil and even the Philippines), and other films have been geopolitically conscious in the past as well (Black Panther), so I see no reason why Black Adam couldn’t have pushed its parallelisms further.

Never once does the film follow through in questioning the privilege of heroes such as Atom Smasher, a literal nepotism baby who is probably more concerned with flirting, or even Cyclone, a teenager sent to a third-world country as a weapon. The previous DC film earlier this year, The Batman, was able to interrogate hypocrisies embedded in its world — why not here too?

And then there’s the character of Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her son (Bodhi Sabongui), who are supposed to be the surrogate audience stand-in throughout the film. The film goes to a screeching halt whenever it cuts back to their storyline. The opening half is painful and a chore to get through. Shahi is undoubtedly a great actor but feels so generic here, and Sabongui is ill-suited to narrate and give plenty of the supposed heartwarming moments.

The film is also incredibly fast-paced, primarily because it knows what the audience wants: to see the bombastic action setpieces. Black Adam packs some of the strongest action in DC thus far, and some of the visual effects (especially one involving Doctor Fate) are astounding to behold. I just wish there were scenes interspersed between some of the action to release the tension or give a breather.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Jungle Cruise) wanted to make the “Dirty Harry” of the superhero genre, most likely referencing the Clint Eastwood anti-hero’s rogue personality. Lucky for him, Dwayne Johnson is in the lead and shines with a deadpan and renegade tone. It’s surprising since Johnson is most known for his smoldering and excessive charisma, but he’s more restrained here, and it’s a good thing.

In the end, DC eventually needs to snap from its obsession with anti-heroes (like, come on, Joker, Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad, Peacemaker). How hard is it to make a good superhero film, not about a villain? In the meantime, Johnson fulfills his passion project of disrupting the DC Universe by introducing a character that could very well be the focal point of the franchise moving forward. 

But perhaps the DC Universe never needed disrupting in the first place. The Rock listened to the fans, but there might have been a better film in store for him if he hadn’t. –

Black Adam is now showing in Philippine cinemas. 

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.