Black Adam 4K Review: Rock in a Hard Place

Through a coincidence of timing that can’t have pleased Warner Bros., the Black Adam 4K review copy arrived at the doorstep mere moments after Dwayne Johnson issued a clearly begrudging statement that his version of the character would not be getting a sequel any time soon. This followed his team sending some fudged numbers to Deadline to make the movie look like a bigger hit than it was by counting merchandise sales as grosses. And of course, Johnson made a huge deal of leveraging his stardom to get Henry Cavill back as Superman, only to have James Gunn promptly wipe the slate clean with a new movie that will recast Kal-El.

For 15 years, the wrestler-turned-actor had been hyping the role of Black Adam. For at least two, he promised it would change the “hierarchy of power” in the DC cinematic universe, imagining it would build around Adam and the JSA characters in his movie.

Now, Black Adam as a movie feels more like a footnote than a segue. With little plot to speak of and a distinctly Snyder-verse style, it hardly seems like a priority. To the extent that it connects the to DCEU, it’s primarily as a semi-sequel to Shazam!, complete with Djimon Hounsou as Shazam the wizard. And yet…Johnson refused to do a movie with Shazam the superhero. Side note: can we please give the latter a proper name in the movies, given that nobody can legally say “Captain Marvel? “Captain Sparklefingers” is silly, but at least it’s something.

And herein, as amply displayed on the Blu-ray bonus features, lies the rub. For all of Johnson’s multi-year obsession with Black Adam, he seems completely, willfully ignorant of the character’s two quintessential characteristics. One: He is a villain. Two: He is a Shazam villain. It’s hard to miss that last one given that he transforms with the same word. Johnson’s just flat-out not telling the truth when he says on the extras that, as a kid reading comics, he related to Black Adam’s strong moral code. Johnson was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s; Black Adam was flat-out evil until the last two decades of DC’s comics. A featurette on the history of the character pointedly fudges these details, never outright saying that he hadn’t been an antihero before so as not to contradict the star.

It’s best to ignore the extras, frankly, if you want to enjoy the movie. Director Jaume Collet-Sera and Johnson try to make a connection to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name that’s laughably transparent and unearned. By the time Logan came around, Hugh Jackman had put in the hours and the work to have a story compared to the western Shane; Johnson, in just one movie as this character, hasn’t. Also, in a world where Tenoch Huerta has no problem pulling off winged ankles and pointy ears, Johnson can’t even do the latter, as called for by all comic depictions?

Still, it’s not like the current movie version of Aquaman looks much like the comics, and fans are largely cool with that. The current DC universe onscreen has a habit of changing things quite a bit, and most of us have accepted that. As a stand-alone movie, Black Adam is a brainless blast of big-guy brawling. It’s the movie equivalent of a box of Cap’n Crunch Oops All Berries, or Oreo Quadruple Stuf. If a film critic far in the future were shown The Scorpion King and Black Adam back-to-back, they might never guess that in the two decades between them, Dwayne Johnson had a moment as a critically acclaimed actor, renowned for having more range and screen charisma than any previous wrestler-turned-movie-star.

The Scorpion King was fun like Black Adam is fun. They’re basically both WWE Monday Night Raw with a twist, in this case super powers. Only this time, Johnson has become 2000s-era Hollywood Hogan, a “cool heel” icon in black controlling way too many shots behind the scenes with his contract, rather than doing what’s best for the overall story. Can anyone imagine a Marvel actor refusing to do cameos in related movies, as Johnson reportedly has with DC? (We can imagine better movies starring any of this movie’s JSA, but good luck getting them now.)

The 4K presentation of the film, unfortunately, falls short. So often with superhero movies, the home 4K version reveals hidden details, and more vibrant shadows. Instead, Black Adam reveals a lot of soft focus that looks like a deliberate attempt to keep CG backgrounds less detailed/more affordable. It also makes the depth, or lack thereof, stand out. In many scenes it couldn’t be more obvious that Johnson is just hanging on wires in front of a volume screen. Blame the cinematographer, perhaps, or blame the transfer. But in this case, more resolution is not necessarily better, and that’s a rare thing to say about Marvel or DC films.

The sound is largely good, with clear dialogue and a well-mixed score. There were a few stutters, however — minor, but annoying. The hierarchy of your superhero movie collection is not about to change.

Black Adam remains the entertaining, three-star superhero smash-up it always was. Its baggage, hollow-hype extras, lackluster 4K and instantly expired place in the DCEU make the disc something less than a must-buy.

Black Adam arrives on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD Jan. 3.

Recommended Reading: Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis

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