The DCEU expands with its B team, promoted to an underwhelming movie of its own. Being steeped in comics lore is a very different thing than being emotionally invested in a movie. Suffice to say, there are people — many people — who have been anticipating a Black Adam spinoff for years. But apart from a fleeting end-credits scene which we won’t spoil here, none of the film’s DC Comics-derived characters, major or minor, will be recognizable to nonfans. The fact that they haven’t gotten franchises of their own speaks not to unearthed gold but the restless, insatiable appetite of today’s superhero industrial complex (a phrase actually uttered in Black Adam’s dialogue), now moving onto the crumbs. It’s a bit like wandering into another family’s heated domestic argument already in progress.
If you just go with it, though, you’ll get a pre-chewed experience that’s vaguely familiar and generic, but with a subversive zag or two that shouldn’t be discounted. Black Adam (now in theaters) begins with a breathless, boy-narrated rush through thousands of years of history sketching the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq; before your eyes glaze over, the takeaways are: oppressed slaves, glowing blue crown of power, a hero will rise, etc. Today’s Kahndaq — sun-blasted, overcrowded, specked with military checkpoints and British-accented soldiers — indicates the anti-colonialist movie that Black Adam sometimes gestures at (as forcefully as a multimillion-dollar product from a global media conglomerate can).
When that hero does rise, floating ominously above the city, he’s Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson), immortal, accidentally freed from his prison tomb, and not hip to today’s morality, never mind its wokeness. Johnson has gone on record about his longtime obsession with the character, yet, in a paradox more interesting than the movie itself, he’s distinctly unsuited for the role, despite his build. As an actor, the Rock has been not merely serviceable but terrific in parts that lean on his speed and slyness. (Michael Bay, of all people, got something subtle out of him in 2013’s underrated Pain & Gain.) “Glower!” you’ll yell at the screen, but Johnson’s not the glowering type.
The viciousness feels unearned; Black Adam bends over backward to link its antihero to Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man with No Name, but apart from a few flashes of PG-13 gore (signature-free Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra grasps for the vibe of Terminator 2: Judgment Day), the film is unusually toothless. It doesn’t help that the plot brings on a whole host of nobodies — Doctor Fate! (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone! (Quintessa Swindell), Atom Smasher! (Noah Centineo), Hawkman! (Aldis Hodge) — all of them bent on trying to take down the one mildly interesting presence in the film. Black Adam is what happens when artists say they want to go dark but don’t really have the stomach for it. Cue scenes of humorless mid-air wrestling, shake vigorously, wait for the sequel.