de facto film reviews 1 star

While not as iconic as the upper echelon of DC characters, Black Adam as actually been around since the mid 1940’s. The character, initially introduced as a villain to Captain Marvel/Shazam has seen his legacy change over the past couple decades, with the character becoming more of a fan-favorite anti-hero than flat-out villain. A film adaptation of the character has long been in the works with mega-star/producer Dwayne Johnson being attached since all the way back to 2007, before the days of the DCEU. Now in a post-Aquaman and Joker landscape that has given the studio more free reign to make standalone stories independent of one another, things have been looking up for the DC brand. Now, the brand is taken down several notches. This latest superhero outing is the kind of blockbuster we’ve largely attempted to move past as a society. Not since the maligned 2016 Suicide Squad or theatrically released 2017 Justice League have we seen a DC blockbuster so jarringly over-edited and over-eager to satisfy everyone, that it comes out satisfying no one.

In the fictional country of Kahndaq, it has been over 5,000 years since the legend of Teth Adam (Dwayne Johnson), a slave who was bestowed the powers of the Egyptian gods and was subsequently imprisoned to an underground tomb. Newly awakened, the almighty being is resurrected, bringing in the attention of the Justice Society, consisting of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man, Clemency), Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell, Voyagers).

There’s a reason Dwayne Johnson was able to move past his wrestling persona into becoming a true Hollywood star. His screen presence was unmatched and proved himself a versatile performer with roles in Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and recently flexing his comedic chops with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Jumanji: The Next Level. With each approaching year, however, he’s found himself attempting less and less to be a dynamic performer, playing the same archetypal character in films such as Rampage, Skyscraper and most recently, the creatively bankrupt, Red Notice. Now, despite being his dream project for more than a decade, Johnson could not seem to care less about giving a real performance with his stiff, lifeless portrayal of Black AdamJohnson’s performance doesn’t even attempt to build on any pathos or layers given to him with endless flashbacks to the character’s past. This is the kind of performance that asks you to applaud at just the first sight of the actor. Granted, the titular character does get a worthy enough introduction sequence that efficiently lays the groundwork for a potentially thrilling new cinematic addition to the DCEU, but Johnson would rather have you excited at his mere presence than anything generated from the script or direction. It’s a shame to see such a likable, charismatic individual, making disposable fair like Walking Tall or Faster imminently watchable films over this cardboard cutout of a performance.

The film can’t seem to make a decision about the character, either, not making him much of a villain, let alone an anti-hero. With only his disregard for human life and inability to get along with the Justice Society the few things separating him from a run-of-the-mill superhero. Any harsh moments such as Black Adam shoving a grenade in a dudes mouth or chopping off another’s arm is trimmed to the gills, making each action feeling inconsequential and harmless. Black Adam is made to be a cut-and-dry angsty superhero with almost no personality; the same goes for the film, as well.

Helmed by filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, the man behind some of the most finely crafted b-thrillers of the past two decades with Orphan and The Shallows, alongside some of the best post-Taken Liam Neeson actioners in Run All Night, Unknown and Non-Stop, Black Adam does have an inherent sense of visual style to it. Shot by Joker DP, Oscar-nominee Lawrence Sher, the look of the film has a distinct vibrancy to the colors of the characters and retains the Zack Snyder-influenced visual palette. However, any interesting shot composition or visual motif is smothered in oppressive editing that feels cut to ribbons in hopes that not a single audience member will lose interest for a mere second. This is the kind of editing that feels test-screened and focus-grouped into oblivion. Any second that isn’t filled with some new visual information is unnaturally trimmed in order to appease the lower common denominator of audience member.

Collet-Serra stages some decent action sequences, but the constant cutting never allows for any moment to breathe, feeling like the film is fast forwarding through itself and treats its audience like absolute idiots who don’t care about plot or character. The few nuggets of originality here are quickly squandered. Amusingly, Collet-Serra implements The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black over an early action sequence, but is over before it can truly lift off. Same goes for Kanye’s Power needle drop which last for all of maybe 10 seconds — see 2017’s underrated Power Rangers reboot for a genuine use of that song in a superhero setting.

The introduction of the JSA offers some of the only rewards of the film. Their inclusion brings in a few notable themes dealing with the idea of foreign imperialism and military rule, but this film relegates those topics to a few lines of dialogue, at best. Quintessa Swindell’s Cyclone holds a great deal of promise that the film couldn’t care less to delve into. Aldis Hodge makes for a fine addition to the DCEU cannon with his Hawkman being by far the most interesting character in the film. Paired with Pierce Brosnan’s future-seeing Dr. Fate, these are two characters that offer fleeting glimpses of hope in a constant sea of cinematic sludge. Noah Centineo’s Atom Smasher feels like a notably calculated comic relief character that fails to generate a single laugh, let alone anything other than irritation.

Black Adam is one big step back for the growing DC universe. We’re back to over-edited, over-produced blockbusters that seek to appeal to only the lowest common denominator of audience member. Dwayne Johnson could not be less interested in giving a real performance as this long-awaited passion project feels far beyond its expiration date.