Black Adam Is the Nadir of Superhero Movies—And of Dwayne Johnson

Dwyane Johnson delivers a charmless performance in his latest movie.

Dwayne Johnson with a serious expression as Black Adam
Warner Bros. Pictures

I have a couple of bones to pick with the tagline for Black Adam, the Dwayne Johnson–starring comic-book adaptation that sees him swooping around in a lightning-bolt jumpsuit and bringing explosive action wherever he appears. The world needed a hero. It got Black Adam, the film’s poster declares, but if you’ll allow me to quibble, the world actually has plenty of heroes already. Black Adam is barging into the already crowded DC Universe alongside costumed greats including Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, and his movie overflows with new ones.

Secondly, although “It got Black Adam” is probably supposed to sound vaguely ominous, the line might as well be delivered with a resigned sigh. Regardless of viewers’ needs or desires, they’ve ended up with Black Adam, an expensive-looking shrug that conforms to the trademark dullness of all of Johnson’s recent efforts. Early in his career, as he made the leap from professional wrestling to movie stardom, he could be a playful and bombastic screen presence; now he seems to insist on playing an endless stream of charisma-free, square-jawed Terminator knockoffs.

Black Adam is perhaps the most charmless of them all. A lightning-infused demigod from an ancient (and invented) Middle Eastern kingdom named Kahndaq, he is remembered as a savior who liberated his people thousands of years ago from oppression. For reasons too boringly intricate to explain, he is summoned to our modern world to fight once again, but his methods of dealing justice are Old Testament enough to alarm a bunch of other caped crusaders, who swoop in to try to civilize him. In the comics, Black Adam is from the same series as Shazam, another costumed do-gooder who graced screens recently. But this movie mostly downplays that connection, except that it has Johnson occasionally say the word shazam with the kind of breathy, self-important reverence that the movie Shazam! sought to avoid. Shazam.

The pitch for Black Adam, of course, is that its star is no ordinary hero. He kills his enemies, typically by melting them with electric blasts or by drop-kicking them into the nearest ocean. He’s less an avatar of justice and order than one of rage and vengeance for the perpetually oppressed Kahndaqis. Johnson’s movie-star career has long reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, and Black Adam feels deeply indebted to Terminator 2, where Schwarzenegger turned his rampaging villain of the first film into a shotgun-wielding champion who learned a code of morality from a wisecracking teen. Black Adam is set in the DC world, but it has a similar plot structure as Terminator 2, down to the teen (this one, named Amon and played by Bodhi Sabongui, rides a skateboard and is always getting into scary scrapes on the mean streets of Kahndaq).

Amon is generally supportive of Black Adam, encouraging him to rid Kahndaq of the mercenaries occupying the city but also prodding him to add fun catchphrases into his superhero routine. But then the ponderously named Justice Society of America shows up, a cadre of costumed B-listers who tut at Adam’s violent methods and order him to report to jail at once. There’s a germ of an interesting idea here. The JSA members are close to buffoonish, and Amon’s mom, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), dismisses them as know-nothing invaders of a different sort, stomping into unfamiliar territory to try to clumsily impose their own value system on a place that doesn’t want it.

But that tension is largely unexplored. Black Adam has too much tedious universe building to attend to: Much like other DC films (particularly the loudly incoherent Batman v Superman), it attempts to launch several new characters at once, leaving no time for deep thought. Instead, we get to know the bossy Hawkman (Aldis Hodge, sporting a very unfortunate metal cowl and wings), the size-changing Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), the wind-summoning Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), whose power mostly involves him clenching his brow as if he’s in the middle of a very nasty migraine.

Why this is the group dispatched to deal with Black Adam is never really explained, because the real answer has to do with Hollywood’s shameless mining of intellectual property. Black Adam would be busy enough setting up the origin story of one new crime fighter, but it instead introduces half a dozen, each of whom will vie for space on children’s lunch boxes and supporting roles in sequels over the next decade. Will Black Adam and the Justice Society become friends? Will they be able to deal with the demonic villain Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari) when he at last pops up? The movie eventually answers these questions, but they appear less important than Warner Bros. having a diverse stock portfolio going forward.

Amid it all, Johnson feels lost—he’s even less magnetic here than he was in Jungle Cruise, the 2021 Disney adventure he made with the director Jaume Collet-Serra, who’s also behind Black Adam. Collet-Serra was once a top-tier purveyor of mid-budget genre delights, but his playfulness and sense of humor are mostly missing here, save for one scene where Adam, having just glimpsed a Clint Eastwood movie on TV, zaps a bunch of villains with his fingers like a gunslinger of old. This was the only time Black Adam made me laugh. Johnson once excelled at playing anti-heroes you could root for and boo cheerfully all in one breath, but now he’s just another silent grump who’s never allowed to lose a fight.