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Black Adam review – Dwayne Johnson’s DC passion project is thunderously bland

Lacking any sort of identity outside of "this hero kills people," this is just one more generic superhero story to throw on the pile

With Warner Bros.’s DC Universe films in a very public shambles (see: Ezra Miller, the Batgirl debacle), the release of Black Adam feels a bit like a last stand, this nine-year-old but still fledgling cinematic universe looking for safety in a Zack Snyder-lite style and the sheer power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s a safety the film mostly finds, an uninspiring origin story that rarely goes above or below “acceptable.” Decent financial returns are all but guaranteed – “Dwayne Johnson Superhero Movie” is about a safe a pitch as is humanly possible in today’s Hollywood – but if this bombastic blandness is the keystone upon which the future of DC movies is to be built, then catching up with Marvel’s faltering but still dominant MCU is a long way off.

The titular character of Black Adam – an immortal Bronze Age antihero empowered by a vaguely Egyptian pantheon of ancient gods – is one that Johnson has been publicly attached to for years and years now, and this long development process makes itself known in the finished product. Rather like the Tom Hardy Venom films, though with a lot less of their silly charm, Black Adam feels like it’s been beamed in from a universe where it’s perpetually 2005, from its “edgy” hero to an irritating and poorly acted child sidekick to the jarring and nonsensical needle drops.

After a near 5000-year slumber after his rage gets him imprisoned by a council of wizards (stay with me), Adam is reawakened in his native land of Kahndaq (a fictional and generic “Mesopotamian” state) by a revolutionary archaeologist who seeks to revive Kahndaq’s protector and drive out its current occupiers, a state-sized techno-corp called Intergang. Grateful to be freed and fiercely protective of his homeland, Adam obliges and starts slaughtering Intergang with a combination of strength, speed, flight, and obliterating blasts of lightning in a series of intermittently fun battles.

A lot has been made in Black Adam’s marketing of Adam’s willingness to kill his villains and, while this doesn’t actually make him much different from the other denizens of the Snyder-led DC Universe or have any interesting moral implications, it does allow Johnson and director Jaume Collet-Serra to engage in some enjoyably punchy violence. There’s blood and pain and dismemberments; it’s all kept within the 12a boundaries, of course, but it does ground Black Adam’s thunderous action in something more real.

This violence also attracts the attention of the Justice Society, an international peacekeeping force commanded by Suicide Squad leader/villain Amanda Waller (a brief cameo for Viola Davis), who come into Kahndaq to arrest Adam but inevitably find themselves first fighting him and then teaming up with him for a battle against a horribly generic CG big bad. It all adds up to a plot that moves fast but is barely coherent. Add the minimal downtime between fights to Adam’s god-level powers and the stakes here are non-existent; you’re just waiting to see what Adam will blow up next and it eventually becomes exhausting.

Johnson dials down his typical charm and smarm for Adam, indulging in a darker side he hasn’t really shown for a few years now and, though this hardly makes for a thrilling performance, his undeniable movie-star megawattage still shines through – it also helps that he’s one of very few actors with an actual superhuman comic book physique. Of the supporting cast, Pierce Brosnan is the easy highlight as Justice Society member Doctor Fate – a 100 year old helmeted sorcerer who can see the future – but everyone else is instantly forgettable.

The script is similarly mediocre, mostly just perfunctory filler between action scenes and unable to find a consistent voice for many of its characters. In one scene, Adam (who, despite being from 2600 BC Mesopotamia, learns modern English instantly) will crack a wry joke, but in the next will have a T-800 or Drax-esque literalness, needing the concept of sarcasm explained to him. It’s not necessarily a fatal problem for a superhero fight film to have lumpy dialogue, but it does serve to sum up Black Adam’s lack of identity as a whole – it’s so desperate for you to not dislike it that it never finds a compelling reason for you to feel anything about it.

Black Adam is released in UK cinemas on October 21.

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