Dwayne Johnson’s Humor in ‘Black Adam’ Can’t Stop DC From Derailing

The biggest warning sign that DC is running out of any storytelling steam arrives with one big crash in “Black Adam,” which is another CGI-heavy punchathon lacking any substance. There is plenty more to discuss about this movie, but its cultural worth is that it begins to signal that the comic book genre, which has dominated the box office for well over a decade now, needs to start doing some of the heavy work of finding fresh story avenues. Ironically, comic books themselves do this all the time. Admittedly, Marvel still stays in the game by playing with different styles, and experiments that can make up for their own misfires on the big screen this year. Luckily for “Black Adam,” the unimaginative story limps along with a performance by Dwayne Johnson that shows off the actor’s capacity for dry humor.  

It turns out that 5,000 years ago, the city (or country) of Kahndaq was ruled by an evil king, Anh-Kot, who made his enslaved people dig for a magical crystal called Eternium, which would then be used to create the all-powerful Crown of Sabbac. You can guess why the king wanted this particular crown, since it would bestow upon him great powers, etc. Amid a revolution against Anh-Kot, a slave named Teth-Adam (Johnson) lost his son but received the powers of Shazam. He then became a very powerful warrior who has been entombed ever since. Fast forward to the present and Kahndaq is a modern city now occupied by invaders known as Intergang. We then meet archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), who is conducting a dig in search of the infamous Crown of Sabbac. She also has a pre-teen son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who worships superheroes. Inevitably, Adrianna accidentally reads an ancient inscription that awakens Teth-Adam, but just in time when Interangers surround her. Decked in black with a yellow thunderbolt, Teth-Adam (soon to be called Black Adam) annihilates enemies with no mercy, until the Justice Society, a band of heroes supervised by the government, drop in to stop him.

It quickly dawns on the viewer that a lot of “Black Adam” simply recycles everything that has been done before, to an obvious degree. DC is now turning into a big studio equivalent of those straight-to-video productions that would try to ape big hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s. For every “Conan the Barbarian” you would get “The Barbarians.” This movie is obviously chasing after “Black Panther.” Instead of Wakanda, we get Kahndaq, and as in Wakanda they covet Vibranium, here we get Eternium. Light political allegory abounds in how both nations are threatened by fictional imperialist interests. Imagine a bolder “Black Adam” where Kahndaq would be a commentary on Iraq or Gaza, but we’re talking unabashed commerce here. Even the way Black Adam crashes into a mini crater and is found by Adrianna and goofy colleague Karim (Mohammed Amer), is almost a shot-for-shot re-do of how Natalie Portman meets Chris Hemsworth in “Thor.” Dwayne Johnson is then allowed to flex some of his comedic chops by playing another take on the muscled dummy lacking a sense of humor, but is expected to liberate his people from modern invaders. He has no sense of irony and kills every opponent by throwing them high in the air, because that’s how it was done in ancient times. He also flies a lot and smashes through walls. 

By now director Jaume Collet-Serra should be mentioned, even if his style or voice is nowhere to be found in what amounts to another franchise for-hire gig. Serra is best known for atmospheric thrillers like “The Shallows” and “Orphan.” Here he’s chained to the drained aesthetic established by Zack Snyder for all DC movies since “Man of Steel.” We also get the required slow motion action sequences where people leap, impale others and fall off cliffs which could have been shot by Snyder himself, or lifted from his “300.” There’s little grace or originality to any of the violence in this movie, as if we’re watching an automated system. Room also has to be made for the whole new superhero team thrown at us for yet another franchise expansion. The Justice Society is just copies of copies. There’s Hawkman (Aldis Hodge in a costume where we admire his courage in delivering lines while wearing it), Dr. Fate (a relaxed Pierce Brosnan), who wears a gold helmet and can see the future, Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo seeming to imitate Mark Ruffalo), who can grow very big à la “Ant-Man,” and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), who can control powerful winds but does little of that during the movie. They are linked to the overall DC universe through Viola Davis, who returns as government overseer Amanda Waller from “The Suicide Squad.” There’s another link in the bonus end credits scene, which will either inspire a tired sigh or excited fist pump, depending on how invested you are in this franchise.

The rest of “Black Adam” follows the playbook of everything else, including “Wonder Woman” by giving us a villain, Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari), who turns into a flaming demon from hell Black Adam then proceeds to pummel through a lot of wreckage. What is sorely lacking, especially with an anti-hero story, is the satire and dark humor of someone like James Gunn, who last year gave DC its most original burst of creativity with “The Suicide Squad.” That one had its own aesthetic and wicked charm. This one simply continues a stale line of factory films. DC has been suffering from an incoherent form of world-building, where random art projects like “Joker” swirl around with big-budget spectacles like “Aquaman” (which is “Titanic” compared to “Black Adam”). None of it connects and even that should take a back seat to simply telling a good story with craft. “Black Adam” at least features Middle Eastern characters at the forefront, but in expanding representation, it should also try harder at expanding horizons. These are expensive productions for sure, but it doesn’t always have to be about the money.

Black Adam” releases Oct. 21 in theaters nationwide.