clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Rock deserves a better superhero debut than Black Adam

Black Adam is violent, angry, and somehow also boring.

Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam.
Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In his extensive filmography, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has drifted cars, braved falling skyscrapers, thumped Jason Statham, plunged bloodthirsty baboons into a bottomless canyon, thwarted domestic terrorists who would like to inflict harm on a bay, smacked Vin Diesel, fired a rocket at a mutant wolf, squared off against earthquakes, punched missiles, skinned a mythical lion, and revolted against a pyrokinetic Polynesian goddess bent on destroying human life. Seeing a Johnson-led movie is an implicit bargain that one will exchange money to see Johnson defy the laws of nature and logic and accomplish an impossible feat or three.

In his movies, Johnson never dies, never loses, never gives up.

Thanks to his physique, tough-man persona, and dependable charm, Johnson is as close to a real-life superhero as any human on the planet. There may be no actor more built for superheroics than Johnson. Yet there’s a funny little wrinkle in Johnson’s cinematic history: Despite having starred in seemingly every big-budget action franchise to hit theaters, the man once known as “The Rock” has never been in a formal superhero movie.

Johnson has never been in the same cinematic universe as either Batman or Iron Man; he’s never met the Avengers or the Justice League. Johnson has said that he’s entertained studio calls but nothing ever felt right enough for him and studios to pursue.

Black Adam shoots lightning bolts. Lightning bolts kill people.
Warner Bros.

This all changes with the release of Black Adam this week, the DC super-antihero movie that Johnson says has been 10 years in the making. Black Adam will break Johnson’s un-super streak, and that’s a huge part of what makes it special. Sadly, though, the things that make this frustrating superhero movie stand out are few and far between.

The blame isn’t on Johnson or his co-stars, especially a very winsome Pierce Brosnan.

Rather, the problem is the choice by director Jaume Collet-Serra, screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, and perhaps Warner Bros. at large, to clutter Black Adam with so much rhythmless plot. Johnson’s ascent to superhero stardom should be as simple as watching Johnson punch some stuff; everything else should get out of the way.

Black Adam’s biggest weakness is that so much of it isn’t about Black Adam

The most mystifying decision in Black Adam, a movie whose extensive marketing and multiple trailers suggest that it is about the antihero known as Black Adam, is that the movie spends a lot of time on characters that are not Adam. Puzzlingly, much of the film is about a woman named Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui).

Adrianna is a resident of modern-day Kahndaq, a country that seems to be vaguely in the DC universe’s equivalent of the Middle East and is oppressed under mercenary rule. According to Kahndaq’s ancient mythology, Black Adam — or Teth-Adam, as he was known back then — was a slave who saved Kahndaq from falling into the hands of a terrible king. That king amassed the power of demons through a crown made of a magic material called Eternium. Eternium is the only substance that hurts Adam, which seems important — as important as kryptonite, one would think — but really isn’t treated as such.

After their battle, that magic crown is all that’s left.

Adrianna, despite being well-versed in the myth and the imminent danger that this magic object brings, seeks to obtain the demon headgear to ... I’m not sure since the movie doesn’t do a great job explaining what her plans are. To prevent it from falling into the wrong hands?

More on that in a minute, because Adrianna and Amon aren’t the only non-Adam characters we’re spending a lot of time with. The movie also introduces the Justice Society, not to be confused with the DCEU’s Justice League.

Black Adam comes face to beak with Hawkman, not to be confused with Hawkeye or Hawk guy.
Warner Bros.

The Justice Society is an international superhero group led by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who enlist rookies Red Tornado (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) to deal with the new danger. The group is also a DC staple that’s been around since the 1940s but never gotten much attention (if you look it up on Wikipedia, it’s probably a blue link; it exists, but you haven’t clicked it).

The Justice Society is plopped into Black Adam with no introduction, no prior appearances. Initially, it all sort of feels like joining an in-progress round of Double Dutch. Still, the actors playing the Justice Society members do their best, even if we don’t know exactly who the heroes they’re playing are.

Brosnan, draped in baroque gold-laced robes, brings dignified elegance to the magician he’s playing. Hodge is charismatic, transcending a character who’s inherently goofy — I mean, his mask has a beak. Swindell and Centineo have a friendly, easy chemistry.

If this were a movie just about the Justice Society, it might be a fun time. But ultimately, the movie uses all these moving parts to tie itself into a knot. And wait, isn’t this movie called Black Adam? And doesn’t it star The freaking Rock?

Black Adam works best when it leans into its star

We meet Black Adam during Adrianna’s treasure-seeking adventure, after she accidentally leads a warlord and his goons to the magical crown (great job). Unbeknownst to Adrianna or the people trying to kill her, the demon circlet also marks Black Adam’s tomb. In a last-ditch attempt to save herself, she recites a magical incantation, accidentally setting him free. And wow, it’s violent.

Adam vaporizes, maims, and explodes the men one by one via lightning bolt, super speed, super strength — or sometimes all three at once. At one point, he shoves a grenade in someone’s mouth. Usually, superheroes aren’t allowed to kill people, but Adam has absolutely no hesitation about going on a stylish murder spree. This no-nonsense killer does have a heart, though, as he takes it upon himself to protect Adrianna and her son.

It’s also this deathapalooza that attracts the attention of the Justice Society — which fights first against, and then beside, Black Adam, in all his ancient glory.

Waking up a superhuman who’s been asleep for 5,000 years and teaching him about the modern world is probably the movie’s best gimmick, and best use of Johnson. Adam is extremely barbaric, but that’s largely because he lived in a world of kill or be killed. To Adam, it’s disconcerting that Adrianna hasn’t yet taught Amon how to do violence properly, and he earnestly demands to know who will properly teach the boy said violence. His dedication to hurting people is played for laughs; Adam doesn’t understand how modern society operates, and we can all agree that no good person will teach a kid violence. There’s some irony there, though: Warner Bros. has spent a lot of time promising us Black Adam, the movie, is going to be more violent (the movie reportedly initially had an R-rating) and metal (one of Black Adam’s poster taglines is “power born from rage”) than other superhero movies.

Johnson started out in the WWE, and that mode of entertainment, like comic books, loves melodrama, theatrics, and battles between good and evil. It makes total sense that someone brought up in professional wrestling would get what makes superheroes and supervillains tick.

Director Collett-Sera enjoys flanking Adam’s violence with Johnson’s brand of lunky comedy, the crossroads of himbo and protective dad. Adam’s a man out of time; he doesn’t understand television or guns (he calls them “weak magic”), and there’s fun in watching him try to comprehend a world that’s aged 5,000 years without him. He doesn’t know what a superhero catchphrase is or why it might be advantageous to keep a prisoner or two alive. He quickly learns that if you don’t kill all your enemy’s henchmen, you can grill them for information or even send them back to their bosses with a pithy message.

While the movie has its moments — when it riffs on how violence has its place in our world; when it shows off how funny and charming Johnson can be — it’s perpetually busy throwing something else our way, mainly Adrianna and Amon’s demonic artifact hijinks.

“Don’t touch my helmet!!”
Warner Bros.

The movie leaves a lot of open questions: What’s the point in liberating Kahndaq if an evil force unleashes hell on Earth and there is no Kahndaq left? Why didn’t the Justice Society bring in heavier hitters if they were dealing with a godlike threat? Why is this apocalypse crown being stuffed into a kid’s backpack? Why am I watching a movie about all these bad decisions, including Adrianna telling everyone who will listen that she won’t give up the demon crown and multiple scenes of Amon on a skateboard sputtering from one end of a hallway to another? Why isn’t this movie about how rad Black Adam is?

The way this movie is constructed, it feels like someone thought Black Adam would be too esoteric or, bizarrely, that Johnson isn’t enough of a stand-alone star to deliver the goods. Despite what the movie’s massive marketing push suggests, the director and screenwriters don’t seem at all interested in creating a superhero who isn’t like the ones we’ve seen before. Instead, it’s a blitz of a lot of stuff we have seen before and a mountain of fluff that isn’t compelling — a shame because, for the first time in a while, Johnson seems ready to give us a superhero movie that’s much more than we bargained for.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.