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‘Black Adam’ Starring Dwayne Johnson Is Yet Another Loud, Pointless DC Superhero Dud

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a charismatic and popular star who — with the possible exceptions of Michael Bay’s Pain & GainPeter Berg’s The Rundownand Justin Lin’s Fast Five—has never made a very good, much less great, film. That streak continues with Black Adam (Oct. 21), Johnson’s first official foray into superherodom, in which he does a WWE-style heel turn by embodying the title character, an ancient, resurrected meta-human who thinks that murder is the best way to dispatch enemies. He’s a big bad who’s big mad, although it’s moviegoers who are apt to be irritated by this lame comic book-based origin story, which mimics Venom by pivoting around a supposed villain who’s destined to ultimately do good — minus the sense of humor that at least made Tom Hardy’s Marvel vehicle intermittently amusing.

A brief prologue sets the contextual scene: 5,000 years ago, in the made-up Middle Eastern city of Kahndaq, a slave boy fights back against a tyrannical king who covets a demonic crown made of magical Eternium. With the word “Shazam!”, The kid is transformed by wizards into Teth-Adam (Johnson), a dark Superman variant who’s invulnerable, has the power of flight and super-strength, and can shoot lightning bolts from his fingertips. In the present day, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) goes searching for the crown and, when confronted by members of Intergang — a group of foreign “neo-imperialist” invaders who now rule Kahndaq — decides to escape trouble by bringing Adam back to life, figuring he’s the mythic liberator needed by her people. Certainly, the hooded, black-clad Adam has no qualms about slaying Adrianna’s foes. Yet otherwise, he’s a pretty dour fellow whose expressions range from furious glare to even more furious glare.

Adrianna drives around in a Mystery Machine-style VW van with her yacht rock-loving brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and their shady cohort Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari), and she also has a son named Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) who hates Kahndaq’s oppressors and navigates the city on skateboard like some transplant from a ’90s action movie. Black Adam will eventually turn Amon into the John Conner to Adam’s Terminator, coaxing the goodness out of him by having him learn about catchphrases and sarcasm. This doesn’t immediately stop Johnson’s protagonist from hurling mercenaries into the distance to meet a fatal fate, but it — along with Adrianna’s similar pleas that Adam become Kahndaq’s savior — casts him as less of a would-be destroyer of worlds than a run- of-the-mill DC Universe player who just has slightly less compassion for his adversaries than his Justice League counterparts.

Adam makes a titanic entrance by demolishing helicopters, jeeps and their inhabitants in one of director Jaume Collet-Serra’s numerous slow motion-drenched set pieces, which provide plenty of opportunities to inspect the care with which every flaming explosion has been crafted by a CGI artist . There’s absolutely nothing thrilling about such bedlam, though Black Adam does provide the reborn demigod with a mildly interesting opponent in the figure of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), who’s hired by Suicide Squad mastermind Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to put together a Justice Society team to take down Adam. Consequently, he recruits his old pal Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who can create illusions and see the future with the aid of his golden alien helmet, as well as rainbow wind-twirling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and body-enlarging Atom Smasher ( Noah Centineo). They’re no Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but at least Hawkman — outfitted with golden wings, a matching helmet, and a formidable mace — proves a reasonably captivating do-gooder.

Black Adam quickly devolves into a series of sound-and-fury skirmishes between the Justice Society and Adam, each one more elaborately staged and frustratingly weightless and pointless than the last. Penned by three screenwriters who fail to come up with a single novel idea, Collet-Serra’s extravaganza feigns Adam’s ruthlessness while methodically setting up his inherent humanity di lui. Thus, it’s soon revealed that Adam remains royally ticked off about the murder of his wife and child — making Adrianna and Amon his new surrogate clan — and he’s finally pitted against a monster whose devilishness makes him look like a hero. This is all as routine and mundane as such ventures get, and when it comes to the proceedings’ paint-by-numbers politics, let’s simply say that using anti-Semite Kanye West’s “Power” as a theme song for one of Adam’s rampages does the film no favors.

This is all as routine and mundane as such ventures get, and when it comes to the proceedings’ paint-by-numbers politics, let’s simply say that using anti-Semite Kanye West’s “Power” as a theme song for one of Adam’s rampages does the film no favors.

The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” also blesses the Black Adam soundtrack, providing a musical cue that’s as cheesy as a The Good, the Bad and the Ugly gag is out-of-left-field groan-worthy. For all its epic intentions, the film feels small, confined to a generic fictional locale that it promptly decimates. The material only flickers to life during those sparse instances when Hodge and Brosnan are granted a shot at building a rapport rooted in their shared history. Unfortunately, like Atom Smasher and Cyclone’s flirty exchanges, those moments are crushed under the weight of spectacular fights in which no one actually gets hurt (until, randomly, they do) and nothing really changes. While genre fans may delight in the sight of Adam obliterating a kid’s bedroom decorated with Justice League posters and toys, the main impression — emphasized by a post-credits scene with a supersized cameo — is that this is a trial run for Adam ahead of potentially bigger future showdowns, should box-office receipts justify a sequel.

“A bad plan is better than no plan at all,” shrugs Hawkman, thereby seemingly articulating the thinking behind Black Adam and the DC Extended Universe as a whole. Content to merely coast on the magnetism of its leading man, Collet-Serra’s film stitches together plot points and character arcs borrowed from countless blockbuster-cinema predecessors, thereby casting Adam as a wannabe titan who’s really a pretender to the throne. The fact that various particulars go unexplained — why are Shazam powers transferrable by mortals? How did Adam suddenly learn English? Is Hawkman a meta-human or just the owner of great gadgets? —Is emblematic of a production that cares less for coherent and compelling drama than for non-stop razzle-dazzle. Even on that count, however, Johnson’s bid for superhero supremacy falls short, delivering a torrent of monotonous mayhem that’ll have fanboys pining for Zack Snyder’s idiosyncratic doom-and-gloom.

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