‘Black Adam’ Review: Dwayne Johnson’s Anti-Hero Superhero Movie Is Anti-Entertaining

Despite its efforts to tweak the tropes, this is a muddled, overstuffed origin story

Black Adam
Warner Bros.

“A bad plan is better than no plan at all.” This is a line that pops up at various points during “Black Adam,” and while it’s meant to be a whimsical comment regarding the task at hand, by its second repetition it starts to feel like the movie apologizing for itself and its muddled storytelling.

That task is the capture of an exceedingly powerful ancient metahuman known as Teth Adam (Dwayne Johnson), and despite the movie’s best efforts to jazz up the increasingly predictable superhero genre — this one doesn’t care if he kills people — “Black Adam” feels like both too much and not enough, and none of its narrative gambits are helped by a sludgy visual style that’s either distractingly artificial or dispiritingly gloomy, except when it manages to be both.

A flashback takes us to 2600 BCE, when the nation of Kahndaq is enslaved by its wizard king, who forces his people to mine a stone called Eternium so that he can forge a crown that will give him demonic powers. A young teen rises up, Moses-style, and at the moment of his execution, he is summoned by the same tribunal of wizards (led by Djimon Hounsou) who gave Billy Batson his powers in “Shazam!” The rebel becomes Teth Adam, liberator and hero of Kahndaq, and legend says that he disappeared after bringing down the king.

Cut to modern-day Kahndaq, which has been occupied by an international criminal organization known as Intergang. Widowed professor Adrianna (Sarah Shahi, “Sex/Life”) wants to find the crown to keep it out of Intergang’s hands, and she’s aided by her wisecracking, skateboarding son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui, “A Million Little Things”) and her comedy-relief brother Karim (Mohammed Amer, “Ramy”). Adrianna finds the crown in the old throne room, and just when Intergang is about to shoot her, she reads an inscription and summons Teth Adam, who dispatches the bad guys.

His return, naturally, draws the attention of the Suicide Squad’s keeper, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who summons the Justice Society to subdue him. What, you may well ask if you aren’t a comics reader, is the Justice Society? In print, the team has had a long and storied history (even longer than the Justice League’s), but in “Black Adam,” we don’t know if they’re legendary or just go-fers for Waller. The movie doesn’t even offer a roster of members, except for veterans Hawkman (Aldis Hodge, “One Night in Miami”) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who bring newcomers Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell, “Voyagers”) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) along for the ride.

The screenplay, from a trio of writers, hardly knows what to do with all these superpowered folks except to fall back on the dullest clichés, including Amon being a superhero obsessive who tries to bring Teth Adam up to speed on capes and catchphrases. The idea of introducing new heroes with powers first, origin later, seems appealing on paper, but knowing nothing about the Justice Society and its members doesn’t make them particularly interesting adversaries for our anti-hero protagonist. (The blankness works for Atom Smasher, since he’s here to be a doofus who’s adorably out of his element, but when Cyclone talks about getting powers when she was kidnapped as a teen, the movie ditches that conversation before viewers can ask, “I’m sorry, WHAT?”)

“Black Adam” briefly addresses the elephant in the room with one short speech from Adrianna, who wonders why the Justice League sat by for years as Intergang occupied her country but then couldn’t get there fast enough when Teth Adam started fighting on their behalf, but that’s as far as the film goes in exploring the potentially provocative subject of criticizing U.S. imperialism. It would rather tell yet another story of finding the doohickey that will destroy the world and stopping the madman who wants to use it, with a few shopworn plot twists thrown in along the way.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra made his name directing some of the best of Liam Neeson’s post-“Taken” action movies, but his collaborations with Johnson have been less successful. As a leading man, Johnson works best in films where he balances his formidable physicality with a dollop of winking self-awareness, but Serra seems to let him drift too far in one direction or another; “Jungle Cruise” offered a cutesy Johnson performance that was way too in on the joke, while in “Black Adam,” his attempts at grimdark gravitas just come off as stolid and stiff. (By the time he develops a sense of humor, late in the movie, it’s too much and too late.)

The ensemble does what it can with the material, but no one’s going to be including this in their eventual life-achievement reels. There’s a jarring sense of four-quadrant casting at work here — Brosnan for the parents! Centineo for the teens! Skateboard kid for the tweens! — that reads too obviously as a marketing strategy and not as a cast of characters who would actually be interacting in these circumstances.

Most disappointing of all, “Black Adam” is one of the most visually confounding of the major-studio superhero sagas, between CG that’s assaultively unappealing and rapid-fire editing that sucks the exhilaration right out of every fight scene. (And there are so, so many fight scenes.) The premise of a superhero whose idea of conflict is to throw his opponents as far as he can offers some subversive chuckles the first two or three times, but it gets old quickly, as does pretty much everything “Black Adam” tosses at its audience. Sometimes, maybe, no plan is better than a bad one.

“Black Adam” opens in US theaters Oct. 21 via Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.