Black Adam might be The Rock's first superhero movie in an over two-decade-long film career, but if the concept feels utterly tiring and lacking in any novelty by the end, much of that is down to how the actor has been playing one for years. His characters — muscular slabs of manflesh impervious to pain — have dropped off the sides of buildings only to casually stroll their way down, fought their way through entire prison gangs and as of Jungle Cruise (2021), slapped a jaguar in the face and lived to tell the tale. Of what use are superhero powers to a man who's approached every role with the confidence of someone who already possesses them? Written with algorithmic indifference and shot on eye-glazing autopilot, Black Adam is a lackluster addition to the oversaturated theatrical landscape, missing any spark of inventiveness or awe-inducing spectacle that gave these superhero movies their power in the first place.
Rewind to the dusty mines of a fictional Kahndaq in 2000 BC. The fictional country, a stand-in for Egypt, is a change of scenery from the Rock's steadily building jungleverse — The Rundown (2003), Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), Rampage (2018), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), Jumanji: The Next Level (2019), Moana (2016), and Jungle Cruise — in all of which he saves the day in the wilderness. The enslaved Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) defeats his kingly captors in the prologue and is awoken to do so again 5,000 years later. This time, the country has been taken over by foreign invaders only referred to as 'Intergang' (one of the many, many names and pieces of information dropped at leisure throughout the film). There's a mineral called Eternium, an underworld demon Sabbac, a crown that gives its wearer powers, even a reference to ‘Nth’ material that's indestructible (though that last one has as much bearing on the plot as the font of the film's title.) From voiceovers to inscriptions on cave walls, to casual conversations that turn into conveniently-packaged backstories when the script needs them to, no opportunity for exposition is left untapped.
Despite the deluge of new information, the extent to which the film feels like a visual and narrative regurgitation of almost every superhero movie released in the past decade is staggering. A slow-mo sequence of Black Adam zooming through his enemies as lightning flashes around him, pausing to cheekily pop a grenade into one unfortunate victim's mouth, calls to mind the flair of similar scenes of The Flash in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) and Quicksilver in Fox's X-Men franchise. When the Justice Society assembles to bring Black Adam in, one of its recruits is Atom Smasher, an Ant-Man-lite character played by Noah Centineo channeling the shaggy-dog charm of Paul Rudd. Another is Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), whose mirror dimension-esque manipulations and powers of multiplicity evoke Doctor Strange so strongly that even the official DC Comics Twitter account had to remind viewers who did it first. Hawkman (Aldis Hodge, bringing gravitas to a goof fest) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell interpreting speed as a delicate dance) are briefly engaging but underserved.
It’s hard to understand why Warner Bros. would choose to release a film that recycles a dozen better predecessors at a time of peak superhero fatigue, but Black Adam's shortsightedness is explained through its vision of the modern world. When the film shifts to present day, Kahndaqi citizens are enamoured by superheros, hoping for one to rescue them, cheering them on, setting up shrines to them in their childhood bedrooms. What this film fails to grasp is that it takes a lot more work to win over present-day audiences. Another, simpler explanation for why Black Adam was made is eventually proposed by the film itself: "The superhero industrial complex is worth a lot of money," one character succinctly puts it. Feeble internal conflicts are dragged out until they can be resolved by just talking to one another and though information is strategically withheld and doled out in pieces, it doesn't make the plot any less predictable.
The best parts of the film are those that entertain the idea of ordinary citizens as heroes. A young boy zipping through the streets on his skateboard, on a mission to protect an ancient artefact, is shot with far more verve and energy than any of the CGI-enhanced fight scenes. And the newfound strength of a protective mother is far more resonant than The Rock's rote delivery of lines like, “I kneel before no one.” Despite his size and the way the camera lingers on his muscles, director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose past work includes horror films House of Wax (2005) and Orphan (2009), is unable to use Johnson’s towering presence to evoke fear. Black Adam shreds men down to their skeletal remains and survives missile hits unscathed. Yet, his appearance elicits little more than a resigned shrug, the staging of his punches converting them into punchlines.
Black Adam ties the idea of a superhero to that of a liberator, a fitting sentiment since superhero movies have long embodied the idea of escapist cinema. Over its runtime, however, all its talk of challenging and recontextualising mythology rings hollow. For all its championing of freedom, the film is just the latest example of the stranglehold comic book movies have on our culture. His film may advocate the necessity of questioning myths, but The Rock can’t let go of his own.