The state of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is hard to pin down because every few months something else shifts. Each release thus far has its supporters and its detractors, but the one consistent thing is that the fans are hungry to see DC Comics characters on the big screen in a recreation of tales that only jumped off the page in our imagination. Between the business and personal issues, the separation within the fandom, and the will they/won’t they appear again nature of the original Zack Snyder-hired cast, it’s difficult for anyone to get particularly excited about any new DCEU project. But then the first trailer for Black Adam, the Dwayne Johnson-led project with Aldis Hodge (Leverage), Pierce Bronson (Goldeneye), and Sarah Shahi (Life) in supporting roles, and things looked like they were going to change. The audience was going to be given a project with a lead who takes no prisoners, suffers no fools, and, essentially, poses the greatest threat to Earth since the arrival of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) in 2017’s Justice League or 2021’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Unfortunately, what the audience receives is so by-the-numbers that even the most die-hard superhero fan will struggle to find a reason to view the film more than once.
In the country of Kahndaq, criminal organization Intergang runs everything that comes in and out, making as much money as they can in their quest to harvest a mineral known as eternium. Trying to combat Intergang and what she fears is their real motivation for mining Kahndag is former university professor Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) who, along with her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), stumbles onto a discovery that possesses the power to change the hierarchy of power not only in Kahndaq but in the entire world: she awakens legendary hero Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson).
This home release review does contain spoilers and discusses material that could potentially skew an initial viewing experience.
Writing reviews, especially for home releases when the film has been out for a while, it’s nearly impossible to have your perception of the film not be influenced, even minimally. While all reviewers possess their own subjective view, having knowledge of how a film has been performing and how that film has been received by audiences and other film critics will, to some degree, shape your consideration of it. Black Adam is a great example, because when a film like this is hyped so profusely prior to release and then not only flounders, but basically gets cut-off at the knees due to a combination of audience response and an overhaul in division management at the studio, it’s impossible to experience the film without all of that context. Thus it would be irresponsible to examine the film without this context, to some degree.
As someone who grew up on DC Comics, the prospect of seeing any character, hero or villain, grace the screen small or large is an absolute treat. Unfortunately, the run-up to the Dwayne Johnson-led Black Adam was marred before it even hit production thanks to the bungling of Warner Bros. Pictures in their handling of (first) the DC Extended Universe and then (second) the sale to money-centric CEO David Zaslav, who has undermined the creative side of WB Pictures since taking the reins. Considering Johnson’s magnetism on screen and his seemingly unstoppable enthusiasm for the project, Black Adam seemed destined to do as the former WWE star said, and change the hierarchy of power in the DCEU. Sadly, the Jaume Collet-Serra-directed (Jungle Cruise) superhero tale doesn’t set anything alight, let alone create an ember from which a flame could arise. The film merely exists, feeling like a throwback to the cape films of the 1990s when logic was little and jokes aplenty. While this works in films like Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021), it all but diminishes what should be a powerful exploration of power (who has it vs. who wants it), what it means to wield that power, and the cost that comes with it. That seems to be the film Black Adam aspires to be when one looks at the ideas within, yet it’s so intent on creating literal blockbusting action sequences that all of the good stuff gets lost in the rubble.
Let’s look at two examples from the script by Adam Sztykiel (Scoob!), Rory Haines (The Mauritanian), and Sohrab Noshirvani (The Mauritanian) in terms of solid ideas left to fall by the wayside and interesting ideas that are uninspired in their execution. The first comes in the form of Adrianna’s necklace, briefly mentioned when we meet her and Karim, and noted as being a family heirloom. This necklace is seen in the flashbacks as being worn by Teth Adam’s wife, creating the implication that the newly awakened powerhouse and the woman who freed him are related. The script seeks to create pathos through the notion that Teth failed his family, his son specifically, so with Adrianna and her family comes an opportunity to make amends. Maybe it’s something that was to be explored in a follow-up, but with the hiring of James Gunn and Peter Safran to reframe the DCEU moving forward combined with the lackluster public response to Black Adam, it’s less likely that a sequel will happen anytime soon, if at all. The problem, then, is that the script, as it exists, decides to ignore this familial connection in favor of, instead, using a more fish-out-of-water approach where Amon guides Teth through the modern world, teaching him about jokes, catchphrases, and all the things the man from over 5,000 years ago may not know. Teth doesn’t really take to the boy until well into the film, the script working super hard to sell the audience on the mystery of Teth and the legend of him as the hero of Kahndaq. By shunting this small detail, the film could’ve shortcut a lot of the struggle to get Teth to trust Adrianna, to bond with Amon, and allow the script to focus more on the Sabbac storyline that more-or-less feels like an excuse to get Teth to team-up with Hodges’s Hawkman and the Justice Society rather than to have an actual fight over what it means to be a hero and the ethics involved in that. It’s an opportunity squandered, likely made because the creators think they are giving the audience what it wants (bombast), when what they really want is a reason to be invested.
Sabbac is the interesting idea that succumbs to the “protagonist cape must fight inversed version of themselves to win the day” trope. Venom fights Riot (constructed in-universe to be stronger and bigger than Venom), Kal-El fights Zod, Batman fights The Riddler or Joker, and The Flash goes up against Zoom. To this end, Teth should actually fight Shazam (or Captain Marvel, iykyk), which is mentioned in the bonus features as the original idea, but that was scrapped in favor of giving Teth his own film first. As a result, Shazam fought Doctor Sivana, who was portrayed as just a ruined version of Billy Batson, and Teth Adam was put up against both the Justice Society and Sabbac, one with the opposing ethical code and the other the strength the match him. In the comics, Sabbac has taken the form in different people, each one imbued with powers that are fueled by Hell demons that give the individual abilities to rival Shazam. In the script, both King Ahk-Ton of the past and Ishmael of the present (both played by Marwan Kenzari) seek out a mineral to create a crown which will grant the wearer the powers of Sabbac. First, far as my research shows, there is no eternium and the use of it here reeks of how adamantium was used in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) as a means to erase Logan’s memory. It’s simplistic, unimaginative, and serves as little more than a shortcut rather than taking inspiration from the decades of comics that precede the film. The film could’ve taken the stance that power granted by wizards is little more than a shortcut negating any victory, or that this kind of power, however given, corrupts the bearer, yet it refuses to do any kind of interrogation at all. It dances around it as Hawkman and Teth argue, it hints at it as Hawkman finds himself getting yelled at by the people of Kahndaq who see him as just another outsider imposing his views on them, and it suggests it when the reveal comes that Teth was never the intended champion of the Wizards of the Rock of Eternity and is, therefore, a false idol himself. The film is dripping with possibilities that would have made for both engaging entertainment and philosophy, but, instead, we get lots of slo-mo, racist cinematography (why’s everything blown out to look yellow/orange in Khandaq?), and plenty of punchy-punchy smashy-smashy.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the home release (and this is where the bittersweetness comes in strong) is not just the number of on-disc materials and details, but the way they are approached. For instance, Sarah Shadi actually hosts the “History of Black Adam” featurette and Aldis Hodge hosts “Who is The Justice Society?,” each one given the production value and energy from the host that implies a certain expectation that this wasn’t going to be a oner. With each accompanying featurette, the home viewing audience is reminded of the great work that went into the film, on screen and off, and how we’ll be lucky if we get to see any one from this film on-screen in some capacity again. There are no deleted scenes or gag reels (the latter being a proper bummer as the featurettes indicate that this crew had a blast making the film), but with nearly two hours of bonus materials covering everything from character history to costume design to production design, for those who either enjoyed the adventure or just love to know more about filmmaking, there’s plenty to make one happy about the purchase.
Earlier in this write-up I mentioned that it’s difficult for a reviewer who comes to a film late not to notice what happens around a film. I think it’s also important to note that a reviewer should also only review the film in front of them, not the one they wanted. The issue here is that the script sets up a great deal that it refuses to pay off on and utilizes shortcuts that benefit no one but the characters. This results in a lack of general investment or interest, everything falling to who the audience is told to root for versus who they come to believe in. Now, I’m a longtime fan of Johnson’s and will belly up to the table when he signs onto a project. He’s got chops and charisma, and this role is a natural fit for him. It’s an absolute shame that the film around him didn’t utilize him to its fullest, because Black Adam can be a meaty and complex role for an actor willing to walk the line. It’s a shame that we may never see what comes next because, in a sequel, maybe he’d feel free enough to go for broke.
Black Adam 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and digital Special Features:
- The History of Black Adam (10:07)
- Who is The Justice Society? (14:15)
- From Soul to Screen (6:07)
- Black Adam: A Flawed Hero (5:07)
- Black Adam: New Tech in an Old World (4:47)
- Black Adam: Taking Flight (3:31)
- Black Adam: A new type of action (6:37)
- Kahndaq: Designing a Nation (6:26)
- The ROCK of Eternity (5:40)
- Costumes Make the Hero (8:24)
Available on digital November 22nd, 2022.
Available on HBO Max December 16th, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD January 3rd, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Black Adam webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.
Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews, streaming
Well, this is just disappointing. I was really looking forward to BAvS but Gunn seems to have no interest in making that film. Black Adam could have been pulled into the Shazam universe. So much they could do. Sigh.
With the poor management of the connected universe thus far, the total clean sweep of material isn’t too surprising. Especially for things that have not hit strongly with audiences. That’s why I’m not shocked that “The Suicide Squad” and “Peacemaker” are rumored to be sticking around as those did well, whereas most of the rest have not. Plus, add in no Patty Jenkins for “WW3,” it’s less likely that Gadot would stick around.
Personally, I think too much blame is going on Gunn and Saffron and not enough on WB Management. They are just hired guns coming in to play with toys.
I’m just bitter they are getting rid of Cavill and, for the love of sanity, keeping Ezra Miller? That makes no sense to me. Keep the man who is adored by fans and just drop the guy with federal charges against him.
Can appreciate the frustration. Between the complications that arose during the filming and reception of “Justice League,” plus COVID and the WB buy, Cavill got the short stick on a lot of things.
Got nothing to explain standing by “The Flash.” Of all the things to scrap, that would be the project given what’s going on with Miller.
With the TV series ending, scoop up Grant Gustin.