As Black Adam moved me to tears—of boredom, of rage—I found myself wondering if Dwayne Johnson had ascended to movie stardom in the wrong age. What if, say, he had gotten to play the roles that Arnold Schwarzenegger did in the ‘90s? He’s not a worse actor, though he lacks his weird Teutonic appeal. Yet Schwarzenegger did Terminator 2 and Predator and Total Recall and half a dozen other films people still talk about. And Johnson has one of the worst filmographies of any Hollywood titan. What film of his will you be watching in 2042?
If anyone’s looking up Black Adam in two decades, it’ll be to understand the collapse of the studio system that made one too many films like Black Adam. Jaume Collet-Serra's film opens 5000 years ago in a fictional land called Kahndaq. It’s ruled by Anh-Kot, a despot who seeks a crystal called eternium to make into a crown that will allow him otherworldly powers. A young boy revolts against the king, and through the ancient power of shazam (I cringed as I typed this) becomes the warrior Teth-Adam. Then he’s put to sleep, and everything goes quiet for five millennia.
In modern-day Kahndaq live Adrianne and her son, Amon. She’s hunting for the same crown that was forged all those years ago, before it falls into the hands of Intergang, the crime syndicate that keep the city subjugated. Kahndaq resembles a Middle Eastern country under Western occupation, with locals forced to pass through checkpoints and hostile towards any military. Amon tells off Intergang officers—primarily Caucasian—for being neo-imperialists strip-mining his country (it’s a hilarious speech to emerge from a boy who at other times behaves like your average American teen). Oh, to be a Hollywood studio often allied with the Pentagon cheerfully missing the irony of making a sanctimonious film about a Middle Eastern country that’s been invaded one too many times.
In her search for the crown, Adrianne reads an incantation and, just like that, Teth-Adam (Johnson) is resurrected. He’s feeling no apparent aftereffects of his long sleep, immediately disposing of dozens of Intergang soldiers. He’s bulletproof, bombproof, has super strength and speed. He’s pretty much impervious to everything except eternium. The problem with this indestructability is that is makes for predictable action scenes. For a while it’s fun to see Johnson fling his enemies into the ocean miles away or throw helicopters at other helicopters. But the novelty of a slightly sadistic Superman wears thin. There are two set-pieces with some flair—one airborne and combustible, the other subterranean and wet—but even these seem like Snyder-lite visions.
A quartet of B-level superheroes—Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan, mumbling behind a ton of whiskers), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell)—are sent to bring him in. In time, the film’s main antagonist is revealed, a local named Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari) who wants the crown and the power. None of it matters: Adam is just too powerful, a one-god wrecking ball destroying everything in his way. He’s clearly a hero—give or take a lot of extrajudicial killing (Hawkman’s words)—yet keeps insisting he’s not. This is tiresome to watch, yet the film has to do it because the Black Adam of DC comics was for long a villain, and they might want to pit him against Shazam or Superman in future movies.
Of course, Superman’s indestructible too, but at least there’s an interiority with him, and emotional ties to be explored. Adam has no deep thoughts, no mission, nowhere particular to go. He doesn’t want to rule Kahndaq—he'll protect it at best—and he doesn’t want to be on a superhero team. There’s nothing going on inside, or if there is we get no hint from Johnson’s granite face. He may be the most purposeless superhero ever.
In a scene in Adrianna’s apartment, the climactic shootout from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is shown playing on TV. A little later, Adam gets into a Mexican standoff with Intergang operatives. We're shown itchy trigger fingers. Morricone’s score—or a pastiche of it—plays. But it’s meaningless. There are no stakes; we know they won’t be able to harm Adam even if they draw first. It carries no weight, like the film, like the career of its leading man.