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Dwayne Johnson is ready to embrace the heel again in ‘Black Adam’


Dwayne Johnson in Los Angeles, Oct. 9, 2022.

By Dave Itzkoff


When you watch a film starring Dwayne Johnson these days, you generally know the kind of protagonist he’s going to play: a muscular good guy who, beneath the enviable physique, possesses a heart of gold, and who, in a tight scrape, is more likely to lend you a hand than pummel you into the ground.


But that’s not the role that the ubiquitous action star Johnson, 50, plays in “Black Adam,” which Warner Bros. will release Friday. In the latest entry in the film franchise based on DC comic-book characters (known as the DC Extended Universe), Johnson is cast as the title character, a merciless superpowered adventurer from ancient times who finds himself revived in the present day.


Using his awesome abilities — and a general lack of concern for human life — Black Adam sets about liberating his fictional homeland of Kahndaq from the criminal regime presently running it. In doing so, he becomes a savior to the citizens of Kahndaq while attracting the unwanted attention of the Justice Society, including Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who are unsure if they can trust Black Adam.


Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (who previously directed Johnson in “Jungle Cruise”), “Black Adam” brings to life a long-running comic-book villain who has traditionally served as a nemesis to the young heroes seen in the 2019 DC film “Shazam!”


“Black Adam” is also a project that Johnson has spent years helping to bring to fruition — one that recalls his ascent as a bad guy in the WWF (now WWE) professional wrestling league.


As Johnson explained in a video call this month, he appreciated “Black Adam” for its willingness to question the motives of the Justice Society, the apparent good guys of the story.


“These heroes who have been so beloved over the decades, where have they been?” he said. “They haven’t been to Kahndaq and they have not taken care of an oppressed people for over 5,000 years. But you do have one man who comes back to protect them, who is their champion. I love that commentary and the dialogue that it could spark.”


Johnson spoke further about the making of “Black Adam,” his longtime appreciation of the character and its connections to his pro-wrestling days as the Rock. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.


Q: Black Adam is a role you’ve been waiting to play for a long time. What was so important to you about the character?


A: Almost 15 years of fighting for this and pushing for it. Admittedly, I was a DC boy growing up. I liked Marvel but I loved DC. My Saturday morning cartoon was “Super Friends.” I get it from a studio perspective. It’s the safer bet to continue to invest in the IP [intellectual property] that the world knows. The Justice League — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman. I understand that. But it took convincing to get the studio to look past the Justice League into the DC universe, and there’s some really cool characters there. You’ve just got to give it a shot and trust the investment. Black Adam has been sitting around for almost 80 years.


Q: Was it a challenge to keep your powder dry when, presumably, you could have played many other comic-book characters during this time?


A: I had been approached — I won’t say by who — to play a few other superheroes, who eventually went on to be played by other actors. But I did always feel in my gut that Black Adam was the character for me. The first time I saw a Black Adam comic, I was intrigued. There was an intensity on Black Adam’s face. There was a little bit of rage on that comic book cover. Oh, and he had brown skin like mine. That immediately intrigued me. Who is that? I want to be him.


Q: Was that important to you, to be able to bring a character of color to the big screen?


A: What’s critical is the investment in more superhero characters of color, and Black Adam is one of them. It was extremely important to me and one of the reasons why I was not letting go.


Q: Was there a point where you were deciding between playing Shazam and Black Adam? Their motivations are very different, to say the least.


A: I did have that option when I started discussing this with Warner Bros. almost 15 years ago. Would you like to play Shazam? Would you like to play Black Adam? I appreciated the mythology behind the characters and their connection. But I always knew in my heart that I was Black Adam. The original script that came in, six or seven years ago, both origin stories of Shazam and Black Adam were being told within about a 100-minute movie. It was convoluted and it wasn’t serving them both properly. I made a call to the people running Warner Bros. at the time and I said we should separate these two so they could tell their own origin stories, and that’s what we did. Which then prolonged and delayed the process. It worked against me in the moment, because they went with “Shazam!” first. [Laughs.] I said, OK, not a problem.


Q: You’ve played heroic characters in your movies for many years now. Was it a risk to play Black Adam, whose morality is not so easily defined?


A: I embraced all the characteristics that would deem him a supervillain — his violence and his brutality and his philosophy on justice. Hardcore justice. He’s very economic with his words but also with his powers. It’s not a killing spree. It’s those who, well, have it coming to them. But I never looked at it as a risk. It’s one thing if he’s violent and he’s brutal and he’s full of rage. But when we take our time to tell his origin story and show why he became that way, it’s not a risk.


Q: The DC Extended Universe has taken some unexpected twists and turns — some films that seemed like surefire hits weren’t, and other left-field entries were surprising successes. Does that put more pressure on you and on “Black Adam”?


A: Yes, and I embrace it. It’s a unique time in the superhero genre, where there’s the introduction of fresh blood and new characters on both sides of the aisle — at Marvel and certainly at DC. And the launching of Black Adam is converging with a time where they are also bringing in new leadership at Warner Bros. and new leadership on the DC side is soon to be coming in. I feel very confident about the direction of the DC universe. It is going to require real strategy and real leadership. And that requires us not to look at Marvel’s success and say, let’s follow that blueprint. That’s Marvel. I’m very happy for them. We don’t want to be Marvel, in my opinion. We want to be DC and we want to do it our way.

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