To be honest, I was a little concerned going into Black Adam. A lot of the social media leading to the release had the feel of chirping before a big sporting event. There were a host of fans up in arms regarding Dwayne Johnson's remarks about a fight between Black Adam and Superman (and I'm sorry my fellow Superman fans, but there's a good chance Black Adam would win as he is powered by magic, Superman's only other weakness aside from Kryptonite). Plus the trailer just didn't do it for me. A scene in the trailer (but not in the film) made it almost feel like a response to the MCU; in a way, the film was, but ultimately not in the way I feared but a way that made me excited.
Black Adam (né Teth-Adam) is a complicated character going back to 1945, and over that 77 years he's done some dark things. But, like Marvel's Iron Man, he's a character largely unknown outside the realm of comic fans. Unlike the Trinity (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman), most people don't know his past, which meant DC had an opportunity to refine the character into something that was a little less monstrous and a little more heroic (but with the Dwayne Johnson magic).
Set in the country of Kahndaq, an imaginary middle eastern country with vaguely Mesopotamian undertones from the DC universe, we open with a huge narrative dump which, to be honest, we kind of needed. This is a setting that most of the audience won't know, and sometimes to get to the show you need to do a little tell first. We quickly establish the history of the hero of Kahndaq and how he saved the country from an evil, greedy king. Flash forward to the present, and an evil organization Intergang (hitherto unseen in the DCU) has taken control of the country, ruling it for years and stripping it of the same mineral that the tyrannical king was looking for (eternium, an element tied to the Wizards who gave both Black Adam and Shazam their powers). A plucky band of freedom fighters (played by Sarah Shahi, Mo Amer, Bodhi Sabongui, James Cusati-Moyer, and Marwan Kenzari) work to find an object of great power, and in their search accidentally release Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson), the hero of Kahndaq.
There is a quick rapport between Johnson, Shahi, Amer and Sabongui's characters. They are fun to watch and feel relatable. When they conflict with one another in frustration it doesn't feel unfounded, and where there's humour it feels natural. That said, Bohdi's character is just a little too radical in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja" sense. His use of the skateboard almost feels like a 40-something-year-old writer thinking, "Marty McFly was cool... let's make him like that". That said, if that's my biggest complaint, that's really a nitpick; the character and actor himself are charming and functioning well as an audience proxy, at one point donning a cape much like we all have at some point in our lives.
Teth-Adam quickly moves to liberate the country, drawing the attention of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, back again after her most recent appearance in Peacemaker), reminding us she's the real glue holding the DCU together! Instead of selecting her regular squad of irregular heroes (maybe she's still in trouble over the Starro and Butterfly debacles), she calls in the Justice Society of America, consisting of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Bronson), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). We have a few minutes of narrative setup, but quickly get to the first conflict: the U.S. trying to force its interests on an independent country (which until 30 minutes ago it didn't care about at all). There's some interesting commentary on U.S. foreign policy, but after Black Adam bumps heads with the JSA, they quickly find the real villain leading Intergang, so the JSA and Black Adam team up to save the day.
The cast are all perfect. The design of the JSA was spot on, leaving me in awe of the VFX of Cyclone's powers, the goofy charm of Atom Smasher, the sheer kick-ass awesomeness of Hawkman, and Pierce Bronson bringing his A-Game to Doctor Fate (an inherently tragic character). I want a JSA movie now! They paired well with Johnson, whose Black Adam (formerly Teth-Adam) spends the film going through a rapid acclimation to his new surroundings (I'm just going to chalk that up to magic stuff). There are some lines that felt like they should have come out of Drax's mouth in Guardians of the Galaxy, but honestly, it works. It serves the character of Teth-Adam/Black Adam's growth, and doesn't linger long enough to be a problem. Dwayne Johnson is pure charm and made me care for a character that, going into the film, I was kind of afraid of how he was going to be handled.
Ultimately we get a satisfying ending. After an interesting fake-out finale, we wrap up ready for the inevitable sequel. Do yourself a favour and be sure to watch the credits. I don't want to spoil it, but I can say the audience lost their flipping minds. Make of that what you will.
My one criticism is of the character of Black Adam; he is very dark and he maintains that darkness until the end of the film. He's still violent and he has a cruel streak, but it's not without context. He's a man out of time and he's adapting, and I hope they find a good balance before too long. I feel this growth is going to be part of the journey, and with Dwayne Johnson's charm, I'm excited to see where this goes.