We've reached a weird point with superhero movies. Audiences seem to expect that each new one will be the Next Great Thing. Many of the films themselves, even those that are good, have become tediously self-serious, spending as much time trying to advance their “cinematic universes” (a term I despise) as trying to tell an engaging story. Black Adam pleasingly bucks that trend. It delivers all the action you'd expect from one of these pictures, yet possesses a more easygoing tone that invites you to laugh at the comedic moments and enjoy the crazy places the plot goes to. It's legitimately fun to watch.
The setting is a fictional Middle Eastern country called Kahndaq, where a powerful crown was hidden centuries ago after a tyrannical king attempted to abuse its power. (Or something like that. Who cares? The crown is a MacGuffin anyway.) An explorer named Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her cohorts seek it out so they can liberate the people from a repressive modern-day regime. In the process, she unleashes Teth Adam (Dwayne Johnson), a mighty figure who has been imprisoned for as long as the crown has been concealed. He is not a happy guy. In fact, he's prone to violence. She thinks he can assist her cause.
Meanwhile, a superhero group called the Justice Society is brought in to capture Teth Adam, believing him to be an overall threat. Led by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), they not only have to contend with Adam's volatility, but also with bad guy Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari), who wants the crown for himself and is willing to target Adrianna's son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) to get it. The other members of the team are size-shifting Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), human tornado Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and seer Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan).
Johnson has created a strong onscreen persona for himself. He typically counters his toughness with hints of humor. In Black Adam, the actor puts a cool spin on that persona. The character's no-nonsense, kill-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude is simultaneously badass and hilarious. Adam has a tendency to do things like smash through walls when he wants to enter or exit a building. If a bad guy is in his way, he simply picks the enemy up and throws him several miles away. Johnson plays such behaviors completely straight, as though Adam has no awareness of his natural destructiveness. That, of course, makes it funnier. At the same time, the wanton aggression works beautifully during the action sequences because we can see his determination to crush whomever he's fighting. This is one of my favorite performances Johnson has given.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise) provides Black Adam with great style. Whereas most superhero flicks have frenetic, rapid-fire action scenes, he takes a different approach, employing slow-motion shots instead. Because those shots are edited together briskly, they allow us to notice the details of the action, without sacrificing the sense of momentum that builds excitement. During the climactic battle, there's a shot where you can see Adam's face straining as he engages in a fight. Stuff like that draws us into the character's plight, keeping the focus on the people as much as on the mayhem.
Aldis, Centineo, Swindell, and Brosnan add flavor in supporting roles. They bring both heroics and amusing comedy breaks. Sleek visual effects help to create the story's world, while accentuating the action. The film's major flaw is the lack of a compelling villain. Ishmael, as written, is fairly bland. Some of the backstory pertaining to the crown is mildly confusing in spots, too. Black Adam is nevertheless very entertaining, filled with energy and a palpable enthusiasm to deliver a ride viewers will love taking. Forget the DC Extended Universe; this is a terrific movie about this particular character.
out of four
Black Adam is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.