Dwayne Johnson is built like a superhero. So it was no great surprise when he was attached to a comic book property back in 2007. The surprise came when out of all the characters he could have played, the one he wanted was Black Adam.
Fifteen years later, amidst the resurgence of the comic book movie, two questions remain. 1. Was it worth the wait? and 2. Has the hierarchy of power in the DC universe actually changed?
It turns out the answer is yes… and no.
As character introductions go, Black Adam’s is incredibly strong and dark. Released from his tomb after 5000 years, he grabs a mercenary by the neck and using his powers proceeds to burn him from the inside out. Casually crushing his scorched skull to add an exclamation point on this vicious kill.
Think back to the much debated killing of Zod by Superman in Man Of Steel. There Superman killed because he had to. Black Adam kills because he can.
The hierarchy of power has indeed been changed within the universe with Black Adam being presented as someone on an equal footing in terms of power and ability with Kal-El. The problem this creates is Adam’s position within it.
In the DC comics lore, Black Adam is one of the main antagonists of Shazam. Indeed, the first Shazam film hinted at the character as the champion who came before Billy. However, given the long and winding road to this film’s release, it is fair to say that Johnson has his sights set a little higher as to where he sees. Even going as far as teasing it at the end of DC League Of Superpets in a scene where he voiced three characters.
The film flip-flops between portraying him as a herp, a villain and an anti-hero. Framed as a threat to the planet because of his power but seen as the potential liberator of Kahndaq. As Doctor Fate tells him “you can be the destroyer of this world… or its saviour”.
Part of that central crux is down to Johnson himself in the role. Obviously he has an undeniable screen presence, commanding one’s attention. Albeit his trademark charm, smile (and eyebrow) tempered by an intense brooding. One of the most popular stars on the planet, and someone who is incredibly protective of his brand, it is not hard to see he would want to soften the edges a little.
Where the MCU has gone from strength to strength under one singular vision, the DCEU has flip-flopped between multiple approaches. If there is one man who can course correct and bring everything together, it is Dwayne Johnson.
This film comes at a pivotal moment for the DCEU. The main titles are suffering from off-screen controversy, cancellations and delays, while the most successful properties (critically and commercially) have been the stand alones (Joker, The Batman).
In many ways it feels like, not a soft reboot, but a hard recalibration. It forgoes tying directly to Shazam, instead opening up the universe by introducing the Justice Society of America via Amanda Waller. Although not to the point of explaining why Justice requires both a Society AND a League. Yet ripping up the established order of things. Literally. In a fistfight with Hawkman in a teen’s bedroom, Adam rips and punches his way through posters and memorabilia of the current members of the Justice League.
It is a shame therefore that while it sets itself out as a fresh start, the film feels like one that would have been made back in 2007 when Johnson was first attached.
It has its moments. Lorne Balfe’s score for example, and the supporting performances of Aldis Hodge and Pierce Brosnan. There is nothing here that elevates it above what has come before. Like the video game style fight scenes or the JSA operating out of a mansion that has a jet hiding under the gardens that feels very X-Men circa 2000. The choice of his Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra is, like everything else, a very safe choice.
When it comes to superhero movies however, the sequels are often better than the originals. Once the exposition and character introduction is complete, the training wheels can come off.
Black Adam is not quite the superhero film we deserve but it might just be the one we need right now. Dwayne Johnson has set the stage to be the saviour of the DCEU. From his time as a wrestler, he has a great sense of being able to read an audience, know what it wants and deliver accordingly.
If Black Adam delivers at the box office, we might just get to smell what The Rock is cooking up for the DC universe.
Black Adam is in cinemas from October 21
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Pierce Brosnan, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo
Runtime: 124 minutes