Lightning seldom strikes the same place twice, unless you’re a DC character uttering the word “Shazam!” but I digress, in this case, I’m referring to the always charismatic Dwayne Johnson collaborating with director Jaume Collet-Serra. The two hit it off with the enjoyable “Jungle Cruise” but their reunion leaves a lot to be desired. “Black Adam” suffers from sloppy CGI effects, overused tropes, and a lack of empathy for any of its characters. I enjoyed the dark overtones but they’re too little too late. The Rock didn’t cook up this hot mess but he sure is served up as the main dish. “Waiter, check please.”
Set in 2600 B.C.E. the film opens in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq where its people have become enslaved by tyrannical King Ahk-Ton (Marwan Kenzari) who forces them to dig for a magical mineral named Eternium. With it, he can summon the Crown of Sabbac which will give the wearer superpowers bestowed by the six demons of Hell. This isn’t a Guillermo del Toro anti-hero film, so the dark subject matter is unfortunately saved for the final reel.
The origins story written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani shows how a heroic young boy named Hurut (Jalon Christian) became the people’s champion after the Council of Wizards bestow upon him the powers of Shazam (nice cameo by Djimon Hounsou reprising his role). Hurut is a straight-up superhero who makes the ultimate sacrifice by transferring his powers to his dying father Teth-Adam (Johnson) who becomes Black Adam in a change from the DC comics story, where it was his uncle.
Hurut becomes a young boy again after transferring his powers and he’s quickly killed by the king’s guards. Black Adam, filled with rage, kills Ahk-Ton and his men, and in the process almost wipes Kahndaq off the map. The wizards deem Black Adam not worthy of the superpowers and entomb him where he lays dormant for 5000 years.
Fast forward to the present where rebel mom Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) goes searching for the Crown of Sabbac with her comic book-reading and skateboarding son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) whose bedroom is littered with posters of every DC superhero. On a side note, Shahi, who was born in Euless, Texas, went on to win the Miss Fort Worth USA pageant in 1997 and then became a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader before moving to Los Angeles where she was encouraged to take up acting by director Robert Altman.
Adrianna and Amon are joined by her brother Karim (Houston comedian Mohammed ‘Mo’ Amer) and Ishmael (Marwan Keznari) who looks vaguely familiar. While searching for the crown they accidentally free Black Adam from his prison who is justifiably groggy, with no coffee, and 5000 years of pent-up frustration, what do you expect? He immediately starts wiping out Kahndaq’s modern oppressors, the foreign group Intergang, while reminding everyone that he’s not a hero.
Black Adam is a supervillain in DC’s comics, here he’s a watered-down antihero which only confuses the audience who aren’t sure who to root for when the Justice Society shows up to kill Black Adam after he just freed the people of Kahndaq.
Speaking of the Justice Society (JSA), this B-team of superheroes isn’t as well-known as DC’s Justice League (JLA) which features Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Still, they are a force to be reckoned with in their own right, thanks to Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), the Society’s strongest members. Novice superheroes Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) remain on standby until Fate gives them the green light, which happens a lot since all of them are needed to fight Black Adam.
The setting combined with Dwayne Johnson gives the film a “Stargate” meets “The Scorpion King” feel as it relies on one overplayed trope after another to drive the story. The mind-numbing special effects are just a greatest-hits package of blows, crashes, and explosions highlighted by inconsistent CGI which looks great one moment and shoddy the next.
“Jungle Cruise” was surprisingly an entertaining film even though it was based on a Disney theme park ride. Its success was primarily due to Johnson’s charisma and Emily Blunt’s charm. With “Black Adam” the beloved former wrestler is required to tone down the charm and humor, his calling card, so with just his physique to rely on, Johnson has no choice but to go directly from one fighting scene to the next. Occasionally he gets in a funny one-liner while brooding.
The final chapter gets dark as demon villain Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari) shows up with an army of skeleton warriors who are about as menacing as Benny the cabbie in “Halloweentown”, minus the humor and dad jokes to keep in line with the brooding theme. Dwayne Johnson can salvage almost any film, but “Black Adam” proves to be a far greater adversary than his star power can conquer. Make sure you stay for the post-credits sequence as a familiar face shows up that brings hope that Johnson will get another chance to tackle the role in a much better film with a much better rival.
Opens this weekend in wide release