BLACK ADAM Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal says the man in black sent him.
With the release of Man of Steel in 2013 and announcements that followed in its wake, it seemed nine years ago that a film franchise based on various DC comics properties might well come to rival that of Marvel's burgeoning cinematic universe. Yet while the MCU spent much of the last decade going from strength to strength, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has been met with a more mixed reception, both commercially and critically. What's needed is something of a rebound film for an ailing franchise. The release of Black Adam, introducing Dwayne Johnson as Teth-Adam, the titular antihero, seemed to offer such an opportunity, but does it do so?

On the surface, perhaps, the choice of Black Adam might seem an odd one. The character isn't one of DC's well-known trinity and has spent his paperbound life as either a villain or an antihero at his best. Not to mention that the idea of the character, summed up elsewhere as a "Superman that kills," seems oddly redundant given some of the DCEU's antics. But when you have someone with the box-office appeal of Johnson, having pursued the role for the better part of two decades, there's an incentive to make it work.

And to the credit of director Jaume Collet-Serra and the film's trio of writers (Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani), they do, and it's something they do in part through the movie's themes and tone.

The moral compass of the DCEU has been askew from the controversial closing act of Man of Steel. That sense of morality in a world of superheroes and perhaps literal gods and monsters often comes across in po-faced, drab moments. It's present here, with Johnson's Teth-Adam arising after five thousand years in the DCEU's present day, a man out of time. Part of the film focuses on that transition from past to present, the connective tissue apparent as history seems to be repeating itself for a man who sees the world in absolutes. Tossing the Justice Society of America into the mix is a move that reinforces that, particularly with their use being a commentary on decades of US-led policy thanks to its setting in an occupied Middle Eastern country.

Parts of that have been explored before, of course, in the DCEU. But what separates this from those earlier efforts is its contrast with those po-faced, drab efforts. While it'll have a long life on streaming and physical media, Black Adam is pure cinema. It's a genuine spectacle from the seemingly endless streets of Kahndaq, with its mix of ancient ruins alongside modern neon lights to its action set pieces. Like James Gunn's superhero-less The Suicide Squad last year, it's a film that relishes in humor amid its chaos. It's not as successful as Gunn's film as its comedic moments, and one-liners especially, can feel forced in places, but Black Adam aims to be something that the DCEU superhero outings haven't been for the most part: fun to watch.

It's also buoyed by two members of its cast, in particular. There's Johnson, of course, bringing his trademark physicality to this super antihero and a sense of the man underneath it all. The notion of his burden with these powers suits this character and Johnson rather well, more so than it did Henry Cavill's Superman, making the film's eventual ending more fulfilling. Upstaging Johnson is no easy feat, but Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate manages to do it throughout the film. Brosnan brings all of his charm, charisma, and dramatic presence to bear in a role as a sorcerer and Merlin-esque consul to both Teth-Adam and the Justice Society. Indeed, Brosnan's might be the best performance in the entire movie, amid a solid supporting cast of new arrivals to the DCEU and a smattering of familiar faces in supporting roles.

Not that the film doesn't have its issues. One of the consequences of having a lead character and supporting cast whose origin story isn't so well known is that, inevitably, exposition is necessary. And, good grief, there are times when Black Adam feels weighed down by it, especially in its opening and closing acts. The information feels necessary to the story but is clunkily delivered, including a voiceover in the opening minutes that feels like the (fictional) history lesson it is. The film also suffers from an over-reliance on slow-motion in its action sequences, often slowing them down without cause. Coupled with some comedic misfires, it's something that knocks the film down a peg or two, but far from fatally since when the film works, it works.

Does Black Adam offer a rebound film for the DCEU? It certainly appears so, from the strength of its central casting to its use of familiar tropes. Beyond that, even with its being exposition and slow-motion heavy, it's an entertaining film in its own right. If nothing else, it's the best DCEU superhero outing since 2017's Wonder Woman.

Given the nature of the DCEU, that may well be damning it with faint praise.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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