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‘Black Adam’ is Less Than the Sum of its Parts but Still a Fun Time

“The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change,” we’ve heard for weeks on end from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Did it really change that much with the release of Black Adam? Honestly? Yeah, kind of!

But fundamentally, Black Adam, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, continues the groundwork laid by James Wan’s Aquaman, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, David S. Sandberg’s Shazam!, and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, injecting a ton of fun into the DCEU after years of overwhelming dread. It may not be the most prestigious film (you’ll find yourself laughing unintentionally in places), but for what it is, it’s a blast.

Slight setup spoilers for Black Adam follow:

Teth-Adam, AKA “Black Adam,” is an ancient champion of DC Comics’ fictional North African country “Kahndaq,” who received powers from the same wizards who granted them to one Billy Batson, AKA “Shazam.” Today, Intergang has taken over and occupied Kahndaq, where the population suffers under them. The imagery, perhaps unintentionally, hearkens back to Occupied Palestine, especially Gaza where Palestinians are trapped between IDF forces and the sea. But the film only has one Palestinian actor, the always hilarious Mo Amer as Karim, with his sister Adrianna (played by Iranian actress Sarah Shahi) being the main point of view character for the audience and co-protagonist to Teth-Adam. And joining them as her son Amon is the brilliant young Egyptian actor Bodhi Sabongui, who steals almost every scene he’s in.

Shahi is consistently brilliant in her role, conveying exceptional strength and vulnerability of character, and channeling the resistant spirit that most SWANA women, particularly in Shahi’s family’s native Iran, must have today. While it would of course be preferable to have a real SWANA country, the filmmakers, and especially the SWANA actors, succeeded in making Kahndaq feel like a real, lived-in place that other SWANA people could relate to, minus the very unfortunate use of a yellow filter towards the end of the film, of course.

The film doesn’t succeed as well when it comes to the heroes and villains themselves. For the first two-thirds of his titular film, Black Adam feels more like a cypher than an actual character, relying on other characters to tell him who he is, and The Rock doesn’t get to give much range. Thankfully though, by the end he gets to flex more of his acting muscles for a resonant conclusion as he asserts who he really wants to be. While Pierce Brosnan shines as the Kent Nelson Doctor Fate with an emotionally powerful performance, his fellow Justice Society members falter in their characters, even while the special effects of their powers are spectacularly on point. Aldis Hodge looks visually brilliant as Hawkman, but his character is the least sympathetic of the bunch, and dives headfirst into fulfilling Amanda Waller’s (Viola Davis) western imperialist interests for Kahndaq.

The script does a good job of presenting the JSA as the antagonists in this geopolitical situation, making it clear that the Kahndaqis don’t want them there, but loses the plot when the JSA doesn’t ask the questions “Are we the baddies?” and “Why are we working for the notorious Amanda Waller?” thus robbing them and the audience of the full anti-interventionist point they should make. But Quintessa Swindell and Noah Centineo are fun enough as Cyclone and Atom Smasher, making for some fun scenes. Unfortunately, it’s very apparent that the JSA are a late inclusion into the movie, and it may have been much better to have not had them there at all, or at least just keep Doctor Fate and Hawkman, and give the latter better moments of realization that maybe he shouldn’t be working for government officials like Amanda Waller.

But the weakest link by far is Tunisian actor Marwan Kenzari’s Ishmael/Sabbac. With an actor as talented as Kenzari, the film unfortunately makes him the most one-dimensional villain you could ask for, and perhaps it would have worked better if we didn’t have him at all, and kept the focus only on Black Adam, the Justice Society, and Intergang.

But despite all this Black Adam remains a ton of fun, especially with its enthralling action. Black Adam’s fighting style is kinetic and riveting to watch, as are those of the Justice Society. Cyclone is mesmerizing, Doctor Fate makes psychedelic and reality-bending visuals that are more imaginative than another superhero sorcerer, and Atom Smasher’s CGI looks great. The film immerses you in its amazing visuals and action from jump, guaranteeing you a fun time.

While Black Adam‘s scattered script doesn’t do its characters and story full justice, the characters, visuals, and hilarious yet heartfelt moments ensure that you’ll still have a fun time. DC Films are often at their best when they don’t take themselves too seriously, and while there are serious moments of resonance in Black Adam, it ultimately balances out with the exciting elements that any superhero film should have.

Don’t go in expecting a prestige film along the lines of Matt Reeves’ The Batman, but go in expecting to have loads of fun.

Rating: B

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