‘Black Adam’ review: The Rock goes bad — mostly for good

DWAYNE JOHNSON as Black Adam in New Line Cinema’s action adventure "BLACK ADAM," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

If the appeal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its polished sheen, the appeal of the DC Extended Universe is its scrappy messiness. On both the big screen and the small one, DC’s live action adaptations often feel designed by committee and held together by duct tape and prayers. And nowhere is that more apparent than in "Black Adam," the long-awaited superhero star vehicle for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

The messiest superhero movie this side of "Morbius," "Black Adam" nevertheless has a certain charm and even a few intriguing — if not downright radical — ideas on its margins. It’s not a good movie in the conventional sense, certainly not when it comes to basic tenets of editing, writing and character development. But it’s compelling in its own way as a kind of weird, earnest crowdpleaser with a surprising amount of heart to complement its bone-snapping PG-13 action. 

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About "Black Adam": A whole lot of exposition

By design (although that doesn’t become clear until much later in the film), the origin story of Johnson’s all-powerful Teth-Adam is somewhat convoluted. He lived as a slave in the ancient city of Kahndaq, until he found himself imbued with powers from the same wizards who granted Billy Batson (Asher Angel) his abilities in the 2019 "Shazam!" movie. 


DWAYNE JOHNSON as Black Adam in New Line Cinema’s action adventure "BLACK ADAM," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Teth-Adam didn’t get much time to enjoy his new superhuman skills, however, as he was almost immediately entombed for 5,000 years. He’s eventually reawakened in modern-day Kahndaq, a fictional MENA nation that’s under military occupation by mercenaries known as Intergang. 

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But wait, there’s more! The newly awakened Teth-Adam soon finds himself mixed up with three opposing forces: a trio of good locals who see him as their protector, a bad local who wants to exploit his powers and a group of superheroes known as the Justice Society who want to send him to superhero jail for his unsanctioned use of lethal force. Throw in a cute kid, some mysterious backstory, a few quick appearances for "Suicide Squad" mastermind Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and a literal trip to hell, and "Black Adam" often seems like five separate movies crammed into its relatively swift two-hour runtime. 

See "Black Adam" for: Multiple films in one


(L-r) SRAH SHAHI as Adrianna and MOHAMMED AMER as Karim in New Line Cinema’s action adventure "BLACK ADAM," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Frank Masi

Indeed, with a plot that somehow feels like both the pilot for a TV show and the culmination of a multi-film arc we didn’t watch, "Black Adam" is a movie with a major identity crisis. Reportedly the film had to be heavily edited in order to avoid an R-rating, and the final product is deeply disjointed and tonally all over the place. But the upside is that if you don’t like one of the many films "Black Adam" is trying to be, you don’t have to wait long for a new one to take over. 

One of those is a fairly fun riff on "Terminator 2," as Teth-Adam teams up with archeologist/freedom fighter Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), her pre-teen son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) and her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), who have long been looking for a homegrown hero who can help them throw off the shackles of Intergang’s occupation by any means necessary. Another is a sort of "Avengers"-lite in which heroes Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) join forces to capture Teth-Adam, who they’ve already written off as a villain. (There’s also some standard comic book movie hokum about a power-hungry baddie, which even the usually reliable Marwan Kenzari can’t save.)


(L-r) PIERCE BROSNAN as Dr. Fate and ALDIS HODGE as Hawkman in New Line Cinema’s action adventure "BLACK ADAM," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Frank Masi

MacGuffin-heavy plot mechanics aside, the real stakes here are the battle for Teth-Adam’s soul, and the question of if/how he’s going to adapt his centuries-old ethics about vengeance and violence for the modern world. And where "Black Adam" really springs to life is in its willingness to allow multiple perspectives and points of view to co-exist among its supporting players. Though we’re meant to like the Justice Society — who are thinly drawn but charismatically played by an engaging ensemble of actors — the movie’s most cheer-worthy moment comes when Adrianna tells them off for ignoring Kahndaq’s plight for decades, only to step in as self-proclaimed heroes when they need something from the region. 

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If you’re willing to extrapolate from the studio-approved comic bookiness of it all, "Black Adam" takes a pretty radical stance about the validity of violence as a tactic to end oppression, even as it celebrates other means of resistance and (mostly) avoids glorifying violence for violence’s sake. 

"Black Adam": Dwayne Johnson’s long-awaited role


DWAYNE JOHNSON as Black Adam in New Line Cinema’s action adventure "BLACK ADAM," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Of course, it’s an idea that would work better if Teth-Adam actually felt morally torn rather than just poorly defined. In truth, the Rock is weirdly cast in this role — one he spent over 15 years pursuing. Unable to pull from his usual bag of comedic tricks, he’s stuck in a mode that’s less morally grey antihero than just nebulous blank slate. But when he succeeds, it’s as an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style straight man in a fish-out-of-water dark comedy with some unexpected pathos snuck into its third act. 

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Does "Black Adam" eventually devolve into one of those weightless, CGI-heavy final battles? Of course. But "Jungle Cruise" director Jaume Collet-Serra has some fun along the way first, showily aping Zack Snyder’s over-the-top slo-mo aesthetic, even if he only occasionally finds anything truly fresh to add to the mix. (A tightly contained bedroom fight is a highlight.) 

Still, for all its messiness, "Black Adam" has the energy of a movie made by people who are invested in what they’re doing and at least loosely interested in injecting some new thematic ideas into the DCEU. It’s not the best live-action film DC has produced. But it just might be the purest distillation of the cinematic universe’s strange, scrappy spirit.

Grade: B-

Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra. Featuring: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan, Mohammed Amer, Viola Davis

Make it a double feature with "The Toxic Avenger," streaming free on Tubi

The Toxic Avenger (1984): This cult classic from the genre titans at Troma Entertainment follows a mild-mannered janitor ("98 lbs. of solid nerd") who becomes his city’s superpowered defender after he falls into a vat of toxic waste. A must-see for horror fans, movie fans and toxic waste fans. Rated R. 82 minutes. Dir: Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman. Featuring: Andree Maranda, Mitch Cohen, Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Robert Prichard.

"The Toxic Avenger" is streaming free on Tubi get the app

Does "Black Adam" have a post-credits scene?

"Black Adam" has one mid-credits scene, which is worth staying for (especially for DCEU fans). There is no post-credits scene. 

How to watch "Black Adam"

"Black Adam" storms into theaters nationwide on Oct. 21. It is not currently available to stream. 

About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

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