The DCEU may not be in the best shape, and despite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s relentless hyping of Black Adam as the film that will turn the franchise around, no one was holding out too much hope. The huge marketing push for Johnson’s DCEU debut was substantial, particularly as the film marks the actor’s first major superhero role, and it’s in a franchise commonly seen as the lesser compared to its rival. Johnson taking on the role of the titular anti-hero/supervillain is a big deal because it casts one of the world’s biggest stars in a role that comes with guaranteed opportunities for reprisals.
Trying to judge Black Adam on its own merits rather than examining what it means for the DCEU is difficult. As the franchise’s struggles have seemingly boiled over in recent months, Black Adam may well mark the turning point for DC’s cinematic universe – particularly as it introduces one of its most powerful characters. However, as Black Adam tells a standalone narrative, it can be enjoyed largely free of the considerations of the wider DCEU.
This is one of Black Adam‘s biggest strengths: it doesn’t labor itself with establishing how it fits into the franchise, it simply introduces a handful of new characters to the mythology. This is particularly notable as it could have leaned on the stories of Shazam! and The Suicide Squad far more heavily (two of the DCEU’s most critically successful movies), but it doesn’t – it rightfully tries to be something separate. It may be formulaic, predictable, and fairly clichéd, but that doesn’t detract from its better qualities. Black Adam is a superhero movie and it knows it – there’s no real attempt at innovation, but instead a focus on getting the basic format right.
Black Adam Doesn’t Break The Mold, But That’s Okay
Black Adam is easy to dismiss as something that’s been done before, but that’s more a critique of superhero cinema in general rather than of the film itself. Yes, Black Adam plays it safe in its general story beats, but its most engaging characters are written well enough to be entertaining, and that’s enough to build anticipation for their inevitable DCEU return. Nowhere is this more evident than with Black Adam himself, because Johnson’s screen presence and natural charisma shine through. This makes Black Adam an enjoyable yet predictable origin story.
Black Adam does attempt to touch on interesting ideas, such as what really defines heroism and whether the traditional idea of superheroes should be challenged. However, it skirts around answering the question – which is good, lest it descend into blatant hypocrisy – and that’s somewhat disappointing because it’s one of the film’s most original notions. The story itself follows well-worn narrative paths that fail to impress, but Black Adam‘s many heroes are compelling enough to keep the film afloat.
One of Black Adam‘s worst missteps is a result of its CGI. Though Johnson has clearly gone to great lengths to achieve the titular character’s exceptional physique, Black Adam‘s villain is rendered in unimpressive CGI, resulting in the film’s final act collapsing into a computer-generated heap of visuals and ultimately undermining all of its better moments. The film’s forgettable and generally inconsequential antagonist repeats multiple DCEU errors, which is perhaps a sign that Black Adam may not be quite the step forward it seemed to be.
There is actually far more going for Black Adam than early critical consensus suggests, but that isn’t to say that it’s objectively good. It uses a formula very similar to the average MCU movie, with moments of levity offered up throughout a more self-serious narrative. It moves away from the DCEU’s needless grit and instead embraces the more fantastical elements of the source material, which should be an encouraging sign – it even hints at how this will factor into the franchise’s future, which is ultimately a good thing. Though it may not be massively innovative, Black Adam is essentially an indication of how the DCEU is able to play it safe: a bankable star, formulaic plot, and a few laughs are all that’s technically required, and that’s largely what Black Adam offers. Whether that should be considered a good or bad thing is subjective, but when objectively judged on its own merits, Black Adam is, by turns, decent, dull, and entirely a safe bet.
Summary: Black Adam plays it safe in almost every way: it’s led by bankable stars, its story follows superhero movie conventions, and it emulates the successes of previous movies. However, that isn’t to say that it’s not fun, particularly as its main characters are decently fun, well-acted, and well-written.
Highlight: Seeing the regular citizens of Kahndaq standing up to members of the Justice Society hints that Black Adam subtly condemns the black-and-white morality of other superhero movies. Even though it’s not properly paid off, it adds an interesting element to the DCEU that will hopefully come into play further down the line when Black Adam returns.