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Dwayne Johnson plays the titular antihero Black Adam.Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

Black Adam

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge and Pierce Brosnan

Classification PG; 124 minutes

Opens in theatres Oct. 22

Like anyone blessed with superpowers – in his case, super-charm and super-brawn – Dwayne Johnson could choose to use his preternatural gifts for the good of mankind. Unfortunately, The Rock has, more often than not by this point in his career, sided with the forces of darkness by producing the most villainous, malignant of blockbusters. And coming on the heels of such dreadfully empty spectacles as Jumanji: The Next Level, Jungle Cruise and Red Notice, Johnson’s new DC Extended Universe movie Black Adam arrives like an especially diabolical plot to suck the remaining life out of moviegoers.

Opening with 10 solid minutes of exposition-vomiting in the form of gee-whiz narration from a young boy who ultimately means little to the story, Black Adam runs through the comic-book basics with astounding indifference. The story involves an ancient kingdom, an evil king, a crown forged from the powers of demons, a council of wizards, a precious metal called “eternium,” which is definitely not the same as “vibranium” from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a young rebel named Teth-Adam (Johnson) who is gifted the strength of the gods in order to free his people from oppression. If none of this sounds particularly original or enticing, I have bad news for you, as the remaining 114 minutes just get further mired in the nonsensical muck, which might be intriguing in its incoherence if it weren’t so absolutely, dreadfully dull.

Any way, if you must know more: The bulk of the story shifts to present-day Kahndaq, a vaguely Middle Eastern city (or is it a nation?) that is now ruled by a Blackwater-like mercenary outfit called Intergang. When that pesky demon-crown is uncovered after 5,000 years spent buried in the mountains, Teth-Adam is resurrected from his supernatural slumber. He’s been called upon to duke it out with both agents of Intergang and some C-tier superheroes from the Justice Society of America (not the more famous, and interesting, Justice League of America) brought in to tame Teth-Adam’s murderous impulses.

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Sarah Shahi, left, plays Adrianna (Isis) and Pierce Brosnan plays Doctor Fate in Black Adam.Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

For audiences more familiar with the MCU than the DCEU, Black Adam’s filmmakers do an unintentionally good job of delivering superheroes who are best distinguished as Marvel facsimiles. There is billionaire Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), who is a slicker version of Falcon crossed with Iron Man; the young Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who is like a klutzier Ant-Man; the energetic Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), who is a younger Storm from X-Men; and the sorcerer Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who is a classier version of Doctor Strange.

It is all very busy – director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps his shots jammed with explosions – yet at the same time relentlessly boring. Aside from half-clever jokes from the production design team – Kahndaq boasts its very own fried-chicken joint called KFC – every set-piece is staged for maximum nothingness.

As Doctor Fate keeps reminding everyone who he comes into contact with, this is all world-ending stuff. Yet the narrative and emotional stakes could not possibly feel lower, even if the film’s three screenwriters attempt to shoehorn in an astoundingly sloppy, insulting metaphor for the Israel/Palestine conflict. (It is only slightly more stupid, though, than Wonder Woman 1984′s treatise on Middle East borders.) By the time of the film’s fake-out finale, the only person who I cared about in Black Adam was Brosnan, and only because I hoped that the actor earned enough here to sit out whatever sequels are inevitably tossed his way.

Meanwhile, for a movie starring Johnson, there is curiously precious little Johnson on screen. When he decides to truly turn it on, the performer has enough charisma to fuel a small city/nation/whatever Kahndaq is supposed to be. But here, Johnson has relegated himself to the margins of his own star vehicle, ceding so much screen time to members of the Justice Society that Teth-Adam (don’t worry, he eventually gets bestowed the title name) becomes even more of a cipher than superhero cinema typically offers. Ultimately, we learn just two things about Teth-Adam: He is very tired, and he is very angry. Hey buddy, get in line.

But Johnson, who is also a producer here, having shepherded Black Adam through a decade and a half of development, gets off relatively easy. The real victim, or perhaps perpetrator, is Collet-Serra. The director who once gave Liam Neeson increasingly (but entertainingly!) deadly obstacles to overcome in such excellent B-movie fare as The Commuter and Non-Stop, has evidently forgotten his genre lessons after being sucked into the Johnson-verse, starting with last year’s Jungle Cruise.

Adopting an action-sequence aesthetic that approximates Zack Snyder Lite – all ultra-slow-motion and clenched jaws – Collet-Serra delivers a stunning middle finger to the moviegoers and critics who once proclaimed him the second coming of genre cinema (guilty, so very guilty). Someone rescue the guy from Johnson’s clutches before it’s too late. Liam Neeson isn’t getting any younger, after all.

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