Until now, BATMAN VS SUPERMAN has been the nadir of DC’s excursions into cinema. Now it has lost even that paltry distinction with the onset of BLACK ADAM, a film with much sound and fury that signifies nothing. Not even Dwayne Johnson, one of the most charismatic movie stars working today can right this shipwreck, and that is saying a great deal, considering that it seems to have been tailor-made for him.
We begin in ancient Kahndaq, a Mesopotamian city of wealth, splendor, and a magical substance called eternium. It’s megalomaniacal king wants more than mere wealth and splendor, though, and so he enslaves his subjects in order to mine enough eternium to create a crown that will give him ultimate power. When the cry for freedom from tyranny goes up, as it will inevitably will, six wizards create a superhero, Teth Adam, from the revolt’s instigator, and, once his job of freeing the good citizens of Khandaq is done, he is laid to rest as a reward for a job well done. Or something along those lines.
Eventually, the action moves to the present, where modern day Khandaq is being occupied by western cultural imperialists out to get that eternium for themselves. A plucky teacher, Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), and her comic-relief brother, Karim (Mohammed Amer) have other plans, though, and they include finding the fabled crown and keeping it from the imperialists. A noble mission, but also, alas, the beginning of the general nonsense that passes for a coherent script. The crown, buried along with Teth Adam, for 5000 years, is a casual stroll into some ruins where no western cultural imperialists have thought to look for lo these many centuries. And there it is, right out in the open, actually floating in mid-air right out in the open just waiting for someone to pluck it forth. Adrianna does, and that’s when the western cultural imperialists following her leap forth and try loot it like everything else in her country. They did not count of the element of chance, or is it fate, that finds Adrianna reading the one ancient inscription in the ruin that will call forth Teth Adam (Johnson) himself.
Cue the overwrought battle sequence (the first of many), and the first glimpse, melodramatically revealed, of the glower that will constitute the greater part of Mr. Johnson’s performance. Don’t get me wrong. He glowers extremely well. He also knows how to deliver a deadpan punch line, both literal and metaphorical. The issue is that the film depends on those two gifts, along with overwrought action sequences, to carry the film. Visually, it’s kinetic. Narratively, it flops like a beached lox. The writing is just so much connect-the-dots to get us from one overwrought battle sequence to the next, and too many of those dots were skipped.
Here’s a mere sampling. Why does Adrianna, who is being hunted by the western cultural imperialists, return to her home right after making away with the crown? Why is the Justice Society bringing in a newbie Atom Smasher/Al Rothstein (Noah Centineo) without any trials or training, even if his uncle is the always adorable Henry Winkler in a cameo? Not that Al isn’t also adorable as a snack-happy atom-smasher with a bad case of puppy love for another team member, Cyclone/Maxine Hunkel (Quintessa Swindell), a young lady with a high IQ and the ability to control the wind. And why does the Justice Society keep throwing a kid who can grow six-stories tall, a super-intelligent tornado, and two guys in gold suits at a demi-god that they know can’t be stopped? Worst of all, in the climactic battle, carnage erupts when it could have all been headed off by a character speaking one word. Seriously, one word.
We are left with shopworn characters who don’t just invite, they actively provoke, comparison to their Marvel universe counterparts: Hawkman/ Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) flying around with big golden wings and Dr. Fate/ Kent Nelson, with Pierce Bronsnan somehow suave-ing his way above the material as a magician who can see multiple futures. I mean, give me a story well-written enough to distract, or at the very least, entertain with this variation on a known theme, as Bach with the Goldberg melody, and did it with ingenuity and a sense of verve.
There is no verve here. There is, however, a great deal of de rigeur carnage, from the running joke about Teth Adam’s penchant for knocking down the walls in Adrianna’s apartment rather than using a door, to ancient monuments in Kahndaq being reduced to rubble. There is also a cute tween, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who is Adrianna’s skateboarding with a talent for getting into serious trouble with the western cultural imperialists while also charming Teth Adam and being an egregious and hackneyed plot device.
BLACK ADAM rampages on for over two hours and providing little in the way of reasons for sticking around so long. There are some timely points about western occupation of lands in the Middle East that rise above the cliché and should have been expanded upon. Certainly, there are precedents in genre films, and the missed opportunity to make this a Middle Eastern counterpart to BLACK PANTHER is the bitterest disappointment of all.