Casting movie stars against type is a two-edged sword. Get it right – Tom Cruise in Collateral or Robin Williams in One Hour Photo – and expectations are upended in a way that makes the viewing experience bracingly unpredictable. Get it wrong and you end up neutering your star’s biggest on-screen assets.
Say hello, then, to Black Adam’s all-new Grumpy Dwayne Johnson. The so-called DC Extended Universe, now onto its umpteenth reincarnation, is still looking for ways to catch up with Marvel’s well-honed, interlocking IP. Jettisoning the Rock’s loveable, larger-than-life charisma in favour of an emo antihero with all the personality of a brick immediately feels like an odd way to go about it.
But that’s the version given to us by this ponderous addition to the DCEU canon. A deity imprisoned in Kahndaq – not a stock exchange, but an ancient city somewhere in a fictional Middle East – he’s awoken from a 5000-year slumber by Sarah Shahi’s resistance fighter, Adrianna. She’s trying to keep the all-powerful Crown of Sabbac out of the criminal hands and her eager comic-loving young son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), alive.
After an early fight sequence that establishes Black Adam’s extensive powers (immortality, firing lightning bolts, floating about, not using doors), Johnson’s Jungle Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra oversees a plot that sees the big badass’s transition from borderline evil to merely quite grouchy. Keeping him in check is the Justice Society, a quartet of peace keepers sent in by the US government’s superhero wrangler Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).
It all feels a bit bootleg X-Men
Once again, an appetite for swathes of exposition and a barrel load of McGuffins is essential. If you’re a DC comics reader from way back, there’ll be a buzz seeing Pierce Brosnan donning the Helmet of Fate as comic-book OG Doctor Fate and Straight Outta Compton’s Aldis Hodge soaring about as Hawkman. If not, it’ll all feel a bit bootleg X-Men. In either case, it’s tough to muster much interest in the duo’s instantly forgettable cohorts Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).
There are enticing hints in its early world-building that Black Adam might have something spiky to say about Western involvement in the Middle East. Kahndaq has shades of post-war Iraq in the foreign exploitation of its natural resources (Eternium, rather than oil) and the presence of Western mercenaries policing the city’s streets. But predictably, it’s only cosplaying as political. The Kahndaqians are soon reduced to a scurrying, panic-stricken backdrop to the choppy, VFX fight sequences.
Few of the laughs land, either. There’s a nod to Terminator 2 in Amon’s burgeoning bond with the super-antihero – ‘you need a catchphrase’ he tells his beefy new buddy – but beyond a smattering of laughs, the script can’t make this self-reflexive dynamic land. What should be fun exchanges between a comic-book superfan and an actual superhero just come across as cynical. ‘The superhero industrial complex is worth a lot of money,’ Amon tells Black Adam, encouraging him to think about building his brand. He should think about becoming a movie producer.
In cinemas worldwide Oct 21