NEW YORK (AP) — In Hollywood’s superhero era thus far, there has been one particularly conspicuous absence: While a parade of big-name actors have taken their turns donning various spandex suits, Dwayne Johnson — arguably the biggest movie star in the world — has, until now, sat out the trend.
The Rock didn’t really need a cape to prove his powers. The 6-foot-5 260-pound actor was, in many respects, already a superhero in his own right: a skyscraper-climbing hulk, a shape-shifting demi-god, even a bulked-up tooth fairy.
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“I was always ready and open to playing a superhero,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “But it had to be right and it had to feel right. I had been approached before in the past about playing a few superheroes that, ultimately, I ended up passing on. They ended up going to the right actors to play them. I just waited.”
The fates have finally aligned in “Black Adam,” a debut so seamless that it could be called redundant. When Johnson was first trying on Black Adam’s suit, he had the muscle padding removed.
Johnson’s entry to the superhero business comes at a crucial juncture for the DC Extended Universe, which has been plagued of late by scandal and misfires. Ezra Miller, star of the upcoming “The Flash,” has been arrested twice this year amid reports of troubling behavior (in August, Miller sought treatment for what he described as mental health issues ). “Batgirl,” a $90 million movie completed for HBO Max, was summarily axed, prompting an outcry over its atypical cancellation.
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has promised a “reset” to the studio’s DC operations in an overhaul to implement a more Marvel-like 10-year structure and improve quality. At the fulcrum of these two eras sits “Black Adam,” which opens in theaters Thursday.
Amid such turmoil, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be welcoming in a movie star as popular as Johnson, who has 341 million followers on Instagram and is often forced to deflect questions about a possible presidential run. But just how much stability can The Rock bring to DC?
“I think the timing is actually perfect. What an opportunity we have,” Johnson said. “I have been saying for almost years now that the hierarchy of power in the DC universe is about to change.”
Before Johnson, not many saw Black Adam as such an axis-tilting force. The character, an ancient Egyptian created by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck, first appeared in a 1945 issue of Fawcett Comics’ “In DC Comics” and has generally been portrayed as a supervillain and foe to Captain Marvel (not the Brie Larson one).
More recent treatments have pushed Black Adam more toward antihero status, something the film, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Jungle Cruise”), extends. Black Adam, summoned to modern day, is depicted as a reluctant hero who fears his own powers.
In one telling scene, Black Adam stops for a moment to watch a television with Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name — an antihero model for Black Adam.
“He has been my inspiration from day one. My favorite actor and certainly one of my favorite directors,” Johnson said. “I’m happy to call Clint a buddy. That was my way of paying homage to him.”
How Black Adam would be introduced to movie audiences wasn’t always clear. Initially, Captain Marvel, also known as Shazam, and Black Adam were to debut in a movie together. After the scripting stage, Johnson and others felt the combined launch did a disservice to Black Adam.
“We did have a template for a really good idea, but ultimately both characters required so much space to properly launch them,” said producer Hiram Garcia. “We were just struggling in terms of bandwidth that the script could hold and in terms of tone, as well. Inherently, as you saw with how the ‘Shazam’ movie came out, that movie is just so differently tonally from how ‘Black Adam’ is.”
“Shazam!” starring Zachary Levi, was a goofy, well-received body-swap hit, grossing $366 million worldwide in 2019 (a sequel is due out in March). The ambitions for “Black Adam” are larger.
The film, made with a budget roughly twice that of “Shazam!” also introduces the Justice Society of America, a superhero team of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell).
“I always felt like it was a matter of convincing our studio partners to try to look beyond the Justice League,” Johnson said. “I love the Justice League. But when you look past them, you open up the DC bible. There are so many cool characters you can tap into.”
It’s been a long haul to develop the film, tailor the part to Johnson and shoot the movie around COVID-19 delays. Johnson was first announced to play Black Adam way back in 2014.
“Easy and this process have not gone together,” Garcia said.
But the filmmakers were committed to giving Black Adam the proper launch.
“If Dwayne Johnson’s going to do a superhero, the powers better be A-plus,” said producer Beau Flynn.
Superhero films aren’t often described as a “passion project” but it’s how Johnson talks about “Black Adam.” He speaks about the character’s previously low profile like an underdog.
“No one gave him a shot,” he said. Unlike many of the best-known comic-book characters, Johnson is not taking on this role secondhand.
“No other actors had stepped into the boots of Black Adam,” said Johnson who professes a deep connection with the character. “I’m a very direct talker. Black Adam is very direct with his thoughts, too. The difference is: Black Adam will slap some people around. I might slap some people around but I’ll do it with a smile.”
As of this summer, Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy are running Warner Bros.′ revamped film division, though no new DC leader has yet been appointed. Zaslav has been seeking his studio’s answer to Marvel’s Kevin Feige to take the reigns. For Johnson, “Black Adam” is part of that new chapter for DC.
“I think you’re feeling this sense of urgency and the sense of excitement,” said Johnson. “This has been a great convergence of ‘Black Adam’ coming out and new leadership.”
Tracking reports have suggested that Johnson, 50, could be headed for his biggest opening weekend ever at the box office with “Black Adam.” But sounding a little like his WWE wrestler, Johnson is also eyeing his next opponent. Black Adam, he believes, is a lesser power to no superhero. He’s gunning for Superman.
“For five years, the most powerful and unstoppable force in the entire superhero universe has been idle on the sidelines. All that had to come to a new end,” says Johnson. “This is what I mean with this new era in the DC universe. Let’s get that hero off the sidelines and on the big screen.”
Review: Will Smith-led ‘Emancipation’ is an action thriller
It comes as some relief that Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” starring Will Smith as a runaway slave in Civil War-era Louisiana, is not, at least traditionally speaking, an Oscar movie.
Despite the film’s important historical backdrop, its awards-season timing and its inevitable connection to last March’s Academy Awards ceremony, the site of the Slap, “Emancipation” is not quite the solemn prestige picture you could easily mistake it for. It’s an action thriller.
Fuqua, a maker of muscular genre movies, has crafted something with less in common than an acutely piercing drama like “12 Years a Slave,” and instead made a film more akin to a gritty, survival actioner — a chase movie that takes its potency less from psychological realism than a brutal B-movie construction. Immersed in the desperate but cunning escape of Peter (Smith), “Emancipation” is a straightforward parable of Black resistance and spiritual perseverance.
That approach makes “Emancipation,” which debuts Friday in theaters and premieres Dec. 9 on Apple TV+, something distinct from many recent big-screen treatments of slavery and also more shallow. Fuqua’s film is often harrowing and gripping but also less nuanced and too narrowly confined in genre conventions than its real-life protagonist deserves.
Peter, whose name was Gordon according to many accounts, was a pivotal historical figure but also a little-known one. In March 1863, he escaped from a Louisiana plantation. Ten days later, after a more than 40-mile flight, he reached the Union army stationed in Baton Rouge. There, a photograph was taken of him seated on a chair with his bare back — mangled by a crisscross of scars — turned to the camera. Gordon went on to join the Union army but the photograph, known as “Whipped Peter,” became one of the most iconic portraits of slavery’s barbarism, and helped fuel abolitionist movements in the North.
“Emancipation,” penned by William N. Collage, takes those few facts and expands Peter’s tale. Fuqua, who drains the nearly black-and-white film almost entirely of color, has given Peter some familiar notes of family and faith. Peter, here depicted as Haitian with a Creole accent, is ripped away from his family to be sent to help build a railroad for the Confederates, his steadfast goal is to get back to his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) and children. With an unflagging belief in God, Peter’s torturous journey takes on Biblical dimensions. So great is the violence that surrounds him and other enslaved men that the monochrome swamps of Louisiana morph into a metaphorical wasteland. “Where is God?” one man asks. “He is nowhere.”
The white man who guards against runaways with a menacing relish, Fassel (Ben Foster), tells Peter that he’s his god. “You walk the Earth because I let you,” he snarls. When Peter grasps his moment to flee, it’s Fassel, with two others, who chase after on horseback. Peter, initially with several others including Gordon (Gilbert Owuor) and John (Michael Luwoye), sets out on his own. Few films reside quite so much in the swamp as “Emancipation” does, as Peter ingeniously navigates through mud, snakes and alligators with the sound, as he says, of “Lincoln’s canons” guiding his way to Baton Rouge.
As Peter, Smith relies less on his natural charisma than perhaps ever before. The character hardly speaks. As a physical feat, Smith’s performance is formidable. But there’s so little here that fleshes out Peter, and little resonates about him. If “Emancipation” is partly a work of historical imagination, the film has supplied Peter little beyond the most basic of characterizations, ones drawn more from countless other thrillers than from history.
Throughout, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is often mesmerizing, if sometimes distracting. The camera draws too much attention to itself, just as do occasional flashes of color peppered throughout. But there are also mesmerizing black-and-white tableaus that seem to want to pull “Emancipation” to a higher realm, albeit at the cost of sticking rigorously to Peter’s perspective.
Still, as Fuqua’s previous films (“The Guilty,” “The Equalizer,” “Training Day”) have shown, a lean thriller can be powerful thing. “Emancipation” isn’t leaden with self-importance, but it is single-minded in its depiction of the savage inhumanity of slavery, and one man’s courageous, indominable refusal to accept it. In the film’s final third, war proves to be just as violent and merciless. Hell, in “Emancipation,” is elsewhere, too.
“Emancipation,” an Apple TV+ release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong racial violence, disturbing images and language. Running time: 132 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Jamie Lee Curtis to receive AARP Career Achievement Award
LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Scream Queen” Jamie Lee Curtis will be this year’s recipient of AARP The Magazine’s Movies for Grownups Awards career achievement honor.
Curtis will receive the honor at the AARP’s annual Best Movies and TV for Grownups ceremony, the group announced Thursday. Alan Cumming returns to host the ceremony, which will be telecast on “Great Performances” on PBS on Feb. 17 at 9 p.m. Eastern.
“Jamie Lee Curtis’ longstanding, ever-increasing career shatters Hollywood’s outmoded stereotypes about aging, and it exemplifies what AARP’s Movies for Grownups program is all about,” AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said in a statement.
Since stepping into the role of Laurie Strode in “Halloween” in 1978, the 64-year-old horror queen starred in her last installment of the slasher series “Halloween Ends,” and the blockbuster indie film, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” this year.
“We are delighted to honor Curtis, who at 19 became an iconic ‘scream queen’ in ‘Halloween,’ then grew up to be a master in comic and dramatic roles, too,” Jenkins said.
Curtis, whose other credits include, “True Lies,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Freaky Friday,” “Knives Out” and the television series “Scream Queens,” is an Emmy nominee and a British Academy Film Award winner. Her films have, over her four-decade-long career, earned $2.5 billion at the box office, the statement said.
The AARP’s Movies for Grownups program champions movies that resonate with viewers 50 and over, and fights ageism in the entertainment industry. Previous honorees include Lily Tomlin, George Clooney, Annette Bening, Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro and Michael Douglas.
Review: In ‘Wakanda Forever,’ an empire mourns and rebuilds
Made in the wake of tragedy, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” reverberates with the agony of loss, piercing the usually less consequential superhero realm. Like someone going through the stages of grief, Ryan Coogler’s movie is at turns mournful and rootless, full of rage and blessed with clarity. In the fantastical Marvel Cinematic Universe where mortality is almost always a plaything, wrestling with the genuine article, in the death of T’Challa star Chadwick Boseman, makes for an unusually uncertain, soul-searching kind of blockbuster-scale entertainment.
It’s a fine line, of course, between paying tribute and trading on it. I did cringe a little when the Marvel logo unspooled with images of Boseman within the letters: Eulogy as branding. That “Black Panther,” a cultural phenomenon and a box-office smash, would get a sequel, at all, was momentarily in doubt after Boseman’s unexpected death from colon cancer in 2020. Radically reworked by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, “Wakanda Forever” pushed ahead in hopes of honoring both Boseman and the rich Afrocentric world of the landmark original. In its admirably muddled way, it succeeds in both.
Part of the profound appeal of Coogler’s first “Black Panther” resided in its deft channeling of the real world into mythology. It fed centuries of colonialism and exploitation into a big-screen spectacle of identity and resistance. In an invented African nation, Coogler conjured both a fanciful could-have-been history and emotional right-now reality.
“Wakanda Forever,” which opens in theaters Thursday, expands on that, weaving in a Latin American perspective with a similar degree of cultural specificity in the introduction of the Aztec-inspired antagonist Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of the ancient underwater world of Talokan. At the same time, Boseman’s death is poignantly filtered into the story from the start, beginning with off-screen death throes.
“Time is running out,” we hear whispered while the screen is still black. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s tech-wiz sister, is frantically trying to craft something in her AI lab to save her brother. But in a moment, their mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), informs her: “Your brother is with the ancestors.” He’s laid to rest in a glorious, celebratory procession, carried through a multi-tiered channel of white-clad, singing-and-dancing Wakandans. It’s as stunning as anything Coogler has shot.
After this prologue, “Wakanda Forever” shifts to a year later. “Black Panther” took some of the spy-thriller shape of a Bond movie, and the sequel carries that on in a new geopolitical context. At the United Nations, the United States and France are pressuring for access to vibranium, the rare metal that Wakanda has built its empire on. Soon after, a U.S. military expedition discovers vibranium at the bottom of the ocean. But just as they’re celebrating, a mysterious tribe of blue underwater people, led by Namor, a pointy-eared monarch in green short-shorts with wings on his ankles, ruthlessly wipe out the entire expedition.
You can feel “Wakanda Forever” searching for a way forward in these early scenes. After such an anguished beginning, how much care can we summon for the whereabouts of magical ores? And more blue people? “Avatar,” you might think, has already laid claim to them. What steadies the film is Bassett. Her awesome presence leads “Wakanda Forever” through grief with a staunch defense of Wakanda that rebalances the newly king-less kingdom. She carries on.
What follows is a globe-trotting plot that draws the film away from perhaps its greatest asset in Wakanda but uncovers new places of latent power among historically exploited people. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the Dora Milaje general, travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to seek the student (Dominique Thorne) who created a vibranium detector. In the Washington D.C. area, Wakanda’s friendly CIA officer (Martin Freeman) experiences new scrutiny from his boss, played by an unannounced comic actress familiar to Beltway politics.
But, mostly, a series of exchanges draw Wakanda and Talokan closer. Are they friends and foes? They are, at least, a captivating tweak to the mythology of Atlantis. Talokan, dark and watery, is no Wakanda, though, and there’s less hint this time of a larger society. Still, Huerta brings a magnetism to Namor. In many ways, he’s a corollary to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, a non-villain whose fury is in many ways justified. His anger appeals to the still-grieving Shuri who finds herself ready, after T’Challa’s death, to “burn the world.”
As in the first “Black Panther,” the question again hangs in the balance of whether, in a pain-ridden and prejudiced world, rage is the answer. This time, it applies to another powerful civilization, too. “Wakanda Forever,” where the role of Black Panther is passed down, is in more ways than one about the transfer of power.
Wakanda and Talokan are brought together a little haphazardly in conflict, as Namor pressures the African nation to join his brewing surface war. “Wakanda Forever” proceeds as a murky, middle-act film that may ultimately serve as a bridge to future “Black Panther” chapters. But along the way, there are countless marvels that Coogler conjures with returning magic-workers like production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter. How the Talokan are flung into the air by whales. The fierce friendliness of Gurira’s performance. Lupita Nyong’o is unfortunately less central here, but every time her Nakia (who has been laying low in Haiti) is present, she graces the film.
“Wakanda Forever” is overlong, a little unwieldy and somewhat mystifyingly steers toward a climax on a barge in the middle of the Atlantic. But Coogler’s fluid command of mixing intimacy with spectacle remains gripping. He extends the rich detail and non-binary complexity that distinguished “Black Panther” in sometimes awkward but often thrilling ways. “Wakanda Forever,” grappling in the aftermath of loss, ultimately seeks something rare in the battle-ready superhero landscape: Peace.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sequences of strong violence, action and some language. Running time: 161 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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