“Black Adam” features a protagonist of almost unlimited power, which only makes its puny script more conspicuous. Dwayne Johnson is saddled by a very limited range of expression as the ancient mystical being featured in DC’s latest superhero epic, a film that isn’t nearly as cool as its poster, while highlighting the inherent challenge of building stories around antiheroes.
Originally a villain from the “Shazam” (that is, Captain Marvel) comics, the antihero formerly known as Teth-Adam receives his own origin story, one that involves gaining extraordinary powers in the mythical kingdom of Kahndaq, then lying dormant for roughly 5,000 years until he’s awakened. His liberation comes from a researcher hoping to free her people, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), seeking a mythical crown that also contains untold power, and in theory, could offer relief to a nation under the thumb of a criminal enterprise known as Intergang.
Adrianna also has a teenage son (Bodhi Sabongui) who is annoyingly well versed in superhero lore. As rather tepid comic relief, he cheerfully keeps trying to coax Adam into uttering catchphrases in much the way the young John Connor coached the Terminator more than 30 years ago, which is every bit as tiresome as that sounds.
Indeed, while it might have been possible to have fun with Adam’s unfamiliarity with modern conveniences, the film largely confines him to terse tough-guy sound bites, neutralizing Johnson’s screen superpower beyond his imposing physique – namely, his natural charm, put to much better use in vehicles like the “Jumanji” revival.
What nearly saves the movie, but ultimately can’t, is its total embrace of comic-book-y conventions and virtual nonstop action over much of its two hours. There’s also a harder edge to the violence courtesy of Adam’s ruthlessness and repeated violation of the “Heroes don’t kill people” code, even if they’re, well, bad.
Of course, the tradeoff to the unrelenting pace is that there’s scant time for plot or explanation. Once Teth-Adam appears, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising her role from “The Suicide Squad” movies) immediately dispatches members of the Justice Society – the original DC super-team that preceded the Justice League in the comics – to combat him.
The thrown-together group consists of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), who leads them, accompanied by the magical Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and wide-eyed newbies Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), the latter pair frankly feeling more demographically suited to the Teen Titans.
Although it’s really a mismatch powers-wise, as directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (who worked with Johnson to somewhat better effect on “Jungle Cruise”), those scenes feel big and move briskly. But like the pre-“Snyder cut” version of “Justice League,” in its haste to replicate Marvel’s cinematic might, DC basically attempts to get away with skipping a few steps, just throwing the Justice Society out there without fanfare or a dedicated introduction – a less promotable prospect than a film starring Johnson, perhaps, but a contributing factor to the awkwardness of this exercise.
There’s simply no getting around the clunkiness of the dialogue, or the sense “Black Adam” overestimates the character’s appeal. Even a sequence during the closing credits hinting at a more dynamic follow-up doesn’t do as much as it should to fuel an appetite for an encore.
Times being what they are, playing an actual superhero represents an inevitable addition to Johnson’s action resume, and “Black Adam” (setting aside “DC’s League of Super-Pets”) checks off that box. Yet after DC’s happy experience with the lighter-hearted “Shazam,” this drab addition to its universe merely underscores how hard it is to catch lightning once, much less twice.
“Black Adam” premieres October 21 in US theaters and is rated PG-13. DC and Warner Bros., which is distributing the movie, are units of Warner Bros. Discovery, as is CNN.