Review: ‘Black Adam’ dispenses familiar super-hero fun

Dwayne Johnson in Black Adam (Warner Bros.)

The latest Warner Bros. super-hero film, “Black Adam,” for good or ill, might be the most comic-bookish movie to hit the big screen since the 1980 version of “Flash Gordon.”

Big, colorful, splashy, messy and a little silly, the movie, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Jungle Cruise,” “Orphan” and “The Commuter”), captures what is both fun and foul about comic books in this collaboration with star and producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who embodies the titular character.

This movie is everything director Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver”) decried a few years ago when he made headlines criticizing how far cinema has fallen since becoming dominated by super-hero adventures.

As a long-time fan of the comic-book medium and super heroes in general, I had a ball watching Johnson’s turn as the melodramatic anti-hero, who shares a kinship and a rivalry with the original Captain Marvel or as he’s known in the comics and movies today, SHAZAM!

Now, just because I had fun watching the movie doesn’t mean I think the film is a great piece of art. “Black Adam” is the equivalent of a greasy burger with a side of onion rings and a big ol’ Coke. I’m not talking Diet Coke, either. No, I mean the real sugary thing.

It’s a gut-bomb of a movie that is satisfying even though you know there are much healthier choices.

The story is formulaic. If you’ve seen “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” – film’s with scripts developed when popular comic-book writer and now TV and film producer Geoff Johns was co-head of DC films — you’ll recognize the basic plot, with the details executed by screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani.

New in Local Theaters – Oct. 21, 2022

Black Adam (PG-13) 2 hr. 4 min. (trailer)
(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)

Ticket to Paradise (PG-13) 1 hr. 44 min. (trailer)
(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)

My Policeman (R) 1 hr. 53 min. (trailer)
(Malco Razorback)

Paul’s Promise (PG) 1 hr. 34 min. (trailer)
(Malco Razorback)

While Black Adam was introduced in comics in “Marvel Family” No. 1 in 1945, the character we see on the screen is adapted from comics written by Johns and David Goyer (screen writer of the Blade trilogy, “Man of Steel” and “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and director of “Blade Trinity”) in the early 2000s.

Let’s just say Black Adam doesn’t mind cracking a few eggs when he is dispensing his brand of revenge and rage, and with powers and abilities that approach Superman levels but little regard for property or human life, Johnson’s Man in Black calls attention to himself.

There is a scene in which Black Adam takes down some high-tech thugs in a showdown that homages the three-way duel at the climax of the “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.” To make sure you notice, bits of the scene from the Clint Eastwood film play in the background on a television set minutes before. That’s how gloriously ham-fisted this movie is.

This brings the Justice Society of America or JSA into play. The JSA are the original super-team, predating the Justice League of America and the Avengers in comics by several decades, first appearing in “All-Star Comics” No. 3 in 1940.

Quintessa Swindell in Black Adam (Warner Bros.)

A legion of DC super heroes have appeared as members of the JSA in comics over the intervening decades, but Dr. Fate/Kent Nelson (Pierce Brosnan) and Hawkman/Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) were there from the very beginning. Atom Smasher/Al Rothstein (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone/Maxine Hunkel (Quintessa Swindell) are legacy characters created more recently by Roy Thomas, Johns and Goyer in the comics to take the place of their mentors – the Atom and Red Tornado, respectively.

Those four heroes are taxed with stopping the god-like Black Adam in the mythical Middle-Eastern nation of Kahndaq that has been overrun by the high-tech and brutal criminal organization Intergang, which has ties to the villain Darkseid in the comics although that connection isn’t mentioned in the film.

After ignoring the plight of the Kahndaq people for so long, the JSA aren’t particularly welcomed by them. The Kahndaqi citizens are growing to revere Black Adam because of his brutal feud against Intergang, who awoke him from 5,000 years of slumber. Black Adam’s backstory, which is a bit convoluted and told in flashback, has him sympathizing with their plight and eager to defend and avenge them.

The interplay between Black Adam, Hawkman and Dr. Fate is the best part of the film. Hodge and Brosnan have several good scenes together as partners who have seen and done a lot over the years and have a manly affection for one another.

The gist of the conflict is that Black Adam has no qualms killing the bad guys. Like all good super-heroes, the JSA, particularly Hawkman, does. This philosophical difference is the most interesting aspect of the film, but it’s little more than window dressing for several titanic action scenes, which are thrilling but still derivative of other super-hero movies you’ve seen.

Other than Collet-Serra’s ponderous over-use of slow-motion action, and his choppy action cuts, particularly early in the film, I enjoyed the super-hero carnage throughout. Black Adam’s final showdown with the demonic villain Sabacc is rippingly fun if you like super-powered battles. And I do.

The biggest issue with the film is just the familiarity with the plot and execution of the action. We’ve seen all of this before, and while the movie tries, it fails to capture the emotional resonance of the best Marvel super-hero movies, and suffers in comparison.

Still I had a lot of fun watching the movie. It’s not a great film, but it is a mostly entertaining adventure if you enjoy super-hero fare.

As anyone interested in reading this review probably already knows, there is a mid-credit scene that’s sparse but worth hanging around for.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 4 min.
Grade: C

Classic Corner – Dracula

Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman in Dracula (Columbia Pictures)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is anything but. The movie really should have been titled Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, because the director of the 1992 movie takes just as many liberties if not more with Stoker’s novel as any other screen adaptation.

That’s not a gripe, though. The film is an entertaining and visually stunning version with Gary Oldman playing Dracula, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, Winona Ryder as Mina, and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker.

Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart add a prologue and a romance between Dracula and Mina that are not even hinted at in the novel. But, those additions aren’t bad. In fact, they add an emotional resonance to the film that other adaptations lack unless you just want a strict adherence to the novel which offers no reason why Dracula seems drawn more to Mina than his other victims.

In conjunction with Fathom Events, the Malco Razorback and the Malco Pinnacle Hills are holding two screenings of the movie at 3 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Thursday to celebrate the 30th anniversary. The movie is also streaming on Spectrum and Prime Video.

Next year is going to be a big year for the Count with at least two films inspired by the classic novel.

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is based off a single chapter of Stokers’ epistolary novel that details Dracula’s trip on the cargo ship, The Demeter, from the Mediterranean Sea to London. Javier Botet, who played the The Crooked Man in “The Conjuring 2,” plays Dracula.

“Renfield” is a horror-comedy named after Dracula’s titular bug-eating pawn, who will be played by Nicholas Hoult, but the big news is that the Prince of Darkness will be played by none other than Nick Cage, which I can’t wait to witness.

Dracula (1931)

Vampires have almost become ubiquitous in pop culture. From novels to movies, to TV programs, we almost can’t turn around without bumping in to one kind of bloodsucker or the other.

Currently I’m enjoying the new TV adaptation of Ann Rice’s “An Interview With the Vampire” on AMC. The fourth of seven episodes airs Sunday night, although the entire series can be watched on AMC’s streaming channel.

While Bram Stoker wasn’t the first author to breath life into vampire prose, his 1897 novel “Dracula” practically codified vampire lore in a work that has fed the imaginations of writers and filmmakers ever since.

In playing Stoker’s vampiric villain first on the stage and then in the 1931 Universal Pictures movie “Dracula,” Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi crafted an iconic image that’s as vital today as it was 91 years ago.

Whether Lugosi’s performance is imitated, mocked, or avoided, his Dracula remains at the forefront of the mind of every writer, director, or actor who attempts to place his stamp on the character.

Todd Browning’s film was supposed to star silent-film icon Lon Chaney, but the actor known as The Man of a Thousand Faces was diagnosed with cancer just as the film was to begin production. Lugosi stepped into the role, and history was made.

Though he knew very little English and spoke his lines phonetically in the movie, Lugosi made the part his.

The movie itself is terribly dated and like most early talkies is rather stagey. It, in fact, was based on the stage play rather than the novel. Though quite atmospheric, the movie is unlikely to scare a modern audience. However, Lugosi’s performance is still charismatic and effective.

Dwight Frye, who played supporting characters in many other Universal horror films, is excellent as Dracula’s the bug-eating underling, Renfield. His distinctive, staccato laugh made Frye’s mad henchmen memorable.

The movie is also streaming on Peacock.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

With its success a year earlier in reworking Frankenstein for the big screen, British studio Hammer Films called upon Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing once again to scare movie fans, but this time to play Dracula and his sworn nemesis Professor Van Helsing.

Lee’s Dracula spoke few lines, but standing 6-5 with bloodshot eyes and fangs dripping blood, Lee is by far the most intimidating actor to portray the Count.

With the benefit of Technicolor, the Hammer horror films featured more gore, sex, and violence than their Universal predecessors. However to today’s audiences, they may seem tame.

Though he grew to despise the quality of the films, Lee played Dracula seven times for Hammer and three more times in movies for other studios.

The movie is streaming on HBO Max.

Dracula (1979)

Frank Langella’s portrayal of the Transylvanian count in John Badham’s 1979 version of Dracula, injected some sex appeal into the role.

While Stoker’s vampire was far from the romantic character of Langella’s portrayal, the movie is a more accurate depiction of the novel than Lugosi’s or Lee’s versions.

While the movie wasn’t the first work to dote on the sexual magnetism of vampires — Victorian repressed sexuality is an underlying theme of Stoker’s novel — Langella makes the count a full-on sex symbol eschewing the bow tie and vest for an unbuttoned shirt to bare his chest, and that aspect has become a core component of most vampire stories since.

The character Mina is not only the object of Dracula’s desire in the film, but she’s also more than willing to cozy up with the Count in his coffin.

In the novel, Mina is under Dracula’s hypnotic sway. In this film, she is happy to push straight-laced Johnathan Harker to the side for the suave Count.

Laurence Oliver plays Van Helsing, adding gravitas to the movie that stands up quite well for a 43-year-old film.

The movie is streaming on Peacock.