The DC Extended Universe has often struggled to find the right way to incorporate darkness into its films. The DCEU started a year after Christopher Nolan concluded his series of Batman films, and the attempts to bring a similar darkness to their properties have had mixed results. While this tone has worked when combined with humor, as with 2021’s The Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey, the DCEU can often feel weighed down with the weight of this darkness. But with DC’s latest film, Black Adam, this universe has finally found a character that can embrace that mood without feeling out of place in this world.
Dwayne Johnson is the perfect actor to play such a character, an antihero who fought to protect his home of Kahndaq, and upon awaking after five thousand years of imprisonment, continues to guard his people against oncoming threats once more. Johnson has been trying to bring Black Adam to screens for over a decade, and he immediately presents himself as one of the most intriguing characters in the DCEU so far. Not only does it feel like a long time coming having Johnson play a superhero, but it’s interesting to see Johnson play an antihero in this way, as opposed to a character with a very heroic moral compass. Black Adam, who goes by Teth-Adam, makes it clear he’s no hero, and his constant decision to kill his rivals makes this well-established early on. When Black Adam is introduced by literally electrocuting the flesh off of a human being, it’s obvious this isn’t like other Johnson roles.
Yet despite constantly watching Teth-Adam throw his enemies to their deaths, putting grenades in their mouths, and generally committing mass murder wherever he goes, Black Adam maintains a lightness. Writers Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani manage to have Teth-Adam make shocking and violent choices, but in a way that never fully villainizes the character. Of course, Johnson’s inherent likability maybe makes this an easier task than one would expect, and the deadpan humor he brings to this role also assists in not turning Adam into the antagonist he could’ve easily become.
An excellent balance to Teth-Adam is the introduction of the Justice Society of America, which attempts to get the newly-released antihero to give up his powers and return to imprisonment. The JSA brings some much-needed lightness to this story, with characters like Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) showing the frequently ineffectual nature of upstanding heroes, and playing off Black Adam well with their vastly different ways in dealing with enemies. But the most exciting addition of this group comes in Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate, a character who can see the future and uses that gift to help guide the team toward victory. Brosnan steals every scene he’s a part of, and the actor is brimming with charisma, even when it might seem a little silly to see the former Bond in a CGI superhero suit.
But a major part of what makes Black Adam work so well is director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has a history of action films, mostly collaborating with Liam Neeson in films like Unknown and The Commuter, and most recently worked with Johnson on last year’s Jungle Cruise. Despite Teth-Adam’s godlike powers that can easily wipe out anyone in his path, Collet-Serra manages to make these action scenes exciting in everything from Adam wiping out large armies to a hand-on-hand fight through an apartment with Hawkman. It’s a testament to Collet-Serra’s directing and Sztykiel, Haines, and Noshirvani’s script that even though Adam is one of the most powerful beings on the planet, these fights still manage to have stakes and never feel frivolous, as if the film just needs a certain quota of action scenes to be successful.
Still, Black Adam does fall prey to some of the same issues that have held back other superhero films. An extended introduction to the world of Kahndaq feels like a massive info dump, full of MacGuffins that will be important for this adventure, and even though the film’s villains and quite literally motivated by demons from hell, they’re fairly generic and forgettable. In a way, the villains are almost comically evil to balance out the antihero nature of Adam, and while it works, the villains who want to take over the world for their own power is fairly run-of-the-mill and lacks the layers that Adam brings to the table.
In the lead-up to Black Adam, Johnson said the film was going to represent a shift in the status quo for the DCEU, and in some ways, that might actually be true. Black Adam sets a strong precedent for introducing new characters and making them fit in this world that we already know. In this reality of superheroes, Black Adam is an anomaly, and yet he fits in nicely with what we’ve watched for almost a decade. While it’s not a major part of Black Adam, it’s great to see elements of other stories seamlessly fit into Adam’s story, such as Amanda Waller working with the JSA, or Peacemaker’s Emilia Harcourt (played by Jennifer Holland) sneaking in for a quick cameo that also furthers her part of this universe in a curious way. Maybe not all the pieces to the DCEU’s puzzle have always fit, but Black Adam manages to make the best parts of this larger vision work for this new character in ways that show promise for the future.
Black Adam isn’t a full-on course correction for the DCEU, but it is an encouraging new installment in this larger universe. Collet-Serra knows how to present this darkness and antihero in a way that’s effective, while also fleshing out one of the most promising additions to DC’s ever-expanding cadre of characters. Johnson is also a welcome part of this world, and while the DCEU has attempted to bring moral ambiguity to characters like Superman in ways that weren’t entirely successful, Black Adam allows DC to play in this darkness with an antihero that doesn’t betray their world or characters. Black Adam might not be the hero the DCEU needs, but it’s a welcome shift for this larger world and an invigorating look at the potential going forward in this universe.