Movie Review - Black Adam
It looks like we’re back on old familiar ground when it comes to Black Adam: critics are less than thrilled while audiences seem to be enjoying themselves. Which side do I fall on? C’mon, it’s DC…of course I liked it. That said, we’ll get to my thoughts in a bit, but first, let’s cover the synopsis:
The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change. In the micro-nation of Kahndaq, an international band of mercenaries named Intergang have used their advanced technology searching for both the rare mineral Eternium and an ancient ruin said to hold unspeakable power. In a desperate attempt to free her country, archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz awakens the long-slumbering Black Adam, the first champion ever empowered by the wizard Shazam. With no compunction about killing and only concerned with freeing his homeland from its oppressors, can the world sit idly by while this tiny Middle Eastern nation becomes a super-power in the global metahuman phenomena?
I won’t re-invent the wheel in this review and will get the points that I echo with other positive reviews out of the way: while the story does get a little thin sometimes and the ‘villain’ as it were is pretty threadbare, the pluses far outweigh the negatives here. Those pluses being The Rock himself, the appearance and conflict with the JSA, and pretty much every action sequence. All that said, let’s plumb the depths that you might not see in other reviews.
While the script certainly isn’t heavy with its themes, there was one line that I thought actually made a great statement: “Intergang has ruled Kahndaq for 25 years, but only now, when we can fight back, do you take notice?” Or something to that effect. For those paying attention, it is indeed a powerful question that should hit American audiences hard. Although our influence abroad is waning for a number of reasons, the short-sighted and selfish nature of our international involvements hasn’t been lost on much of the world the way it has on us, the American people ourselves. If a country is cruel toward its people, we in the US nor the US government may not know or care until something happens to call our attention to it. In this case, sure, Intergang was of no concern to Amanda Waller, who in this film isn’t only just in charge of Task Force X (better known as The Suicide Squad), but the more reputable Justice Society of America as well. But with the power that Black Adam represents? Now she’s interested. Sarah Shahi’s Adrianna brings up an extremely valid point and in some ways, I’m disappointed that the scene that contains this quote is about as far as this theme ends up going. I’ll admit though that perhaps exploring this further might have caused the pace of the film to either get too bogged down or turn the movie darker in tone, which has turned audiences off to some past DC films that went down these deeper avenues. Given that its pace and level of fun are two of the best parts of the film, I ultimately end up siding with the director in veering away from this larger issue.
That said, as much as I love the conflict with the JSA, I gotta ask…does anyone in the DC Universe know the basics of diplomacy? It’s very simple, if you bust into someone else’s home, demand that they stand down and surrender to you or there’s gonna be a fight…you know what’s gonna happen? There’s gonna be a fight! And this is exactly what Hawkman does to Black Adam upon their first encounter. Dude, I’m as mild-mannered as a certain Daily Planet reporter, but if you come into my place barking orders? Hell yes I’m punching you in the face! Look, I get that you have to set up the conflict between ‘heroes’ here, but that doesn’t require a lot of work. All the JSA has to do is wait for Adam to kill someone, step in and say “That’s not how heroes do things” and blammo…fight. I also get that we have to establish that Hawkman is a bit of a hot-head, but again, there are better ways to do that…although I will concede that with running time always being an issue, I understand the need for a ‘fast-forward’ way to get to the fighting…I just don’t agree with it.
That seems like the best segue into the JSA…and I absolutely adore what they’ve done with the team. Younger members Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindel) bring lighter moments to the film without falling into Marvel’s usual trap of making scenes too jokey while also still contributing to the team dynamic. I certainly look forward to seeing more of them. But the big guns here are Aldis Hodge as Hawkman and Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate. Not only do these two play well off of each other and Johnson’s Black Adam, but each do such credit to their roles, bringing fantastic mainstream attention to these characters that have been in the comics since the 40s! The team’s introduction hints at a history that we’re never told, which, hopefully, will lead to a JSA film of its own. From what was seen here, that was definitely one of my first thoughts out of the theater: “Where’s my JSA movie”? I certainly want to take a moment and specifically highlight Brosnan’s Fate. When I first heard the casting announcement, I felt this was perfect…but nothing could have prepared me for just how perfect it is. Brosnan infuses such wisdom, fatigue, lightness and turmoil into the character that captures the Lord of Order so, so well. It was fascinating to hear that he took this role because he was inspired by what Benedict Cumberbatch had done with Dr. Strange for Marvel, but for the former James Bond to take that performance and tone down the jokes and amplify the gravitas is just simply a sight to behold and, sure, I’ll admit that I’ve been a huge Fate fan…thus I’m probably a little biased, I gotta say that Brosnan nearly singlehandedly steals the show here.
Enough of the supporting cast, let’s talk some Rock, shall we? How did Dwayne Johnson do in the role he’s been trying to bring to life for 15 years? Pretty well, actually! Okay, first I had to get over the fact that they weren’t even going to try to do an accent. I guess that’s fine. The important thing however is something that has actually been brought up in other reviews. See…some reviews state this film is an excellent vehicle for The Rock…and I’m not on board with that. Sure, it highlights him, after all, he is the main character, but to call it a vehicle makes it feel like everything in the story is there to service not only Black Adam, but Johnson’s ego as a star too. I just don’t see that here. Let’s contrast that with someone that Johnson has openly feuded with in the past: Vin Diesel. Some of his films…come to think of it, MANY of his films…are totally vehicles: the Riddick films, The Last Witch Hunter and so forth. Since we’ve already reviewed one of these, Bloodshot, let’s use that as our basis for comparison. Seemingly every scene of that film served no other purpose than to remind the audience that Vin Diesel was the biggest badass on the screen at any given moment and any story element adhered to that principle. Of course, there’s a mild challenge that he has to overcome…but that’s just it, it is, at best, a mere inconvenience for him and the viewer knows full well that BloodDiesel will come out fine in the end. Now, yes, I have to admit that we know Black Adam is going to come out of this just fine too, so not much dramatic tension there, but it’s worth noting that we do have moments in the film where it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Johnson’s character. There’s one moment where he genuinely has to reflect on who he is and what he’s done and accept some very unpleasant truths about himself. Say what you will, I’ve yet to see Vin Diesel have a moment like that on film, whereas Johnson pulls it off very well here. You believe that when Adam eventually surrenders, he means it. He finally understands. It's not just the setup for the next awesome action scene where he’s going to come back out guns blazing because he’s the baddest ass of any badasses around. So, no, this isn’t an instance where The Rock is just being The Rock on screen in a Black Adam outfit…Johnson’s performance lends some depth to Black Adam thus turning the film from a simple starring vehicle to a solid entry into the DCEU.
To address the one of the main criticisms levied at the film, that of a weak villain that is more of an afterthought than anything else, we need to actually look at what the main conflict of this movie is in the first place and how the villain fits into that. Yes, the hunt for the MacGuffin that ends up resurrecting Sabaac in the third act is the very thing that starts our story and as such, it feels fitting that it should close the story. The core conflict, however, is more one of Kahndaq against the world. This occurs on a couple of levels as the country goes to blows with both Intergang, the outside force that has taken it over, and then the JSA, an outside force sent in to contain its champion. The first gets interrupted by the emergence of Black Adam, the potential solution, and then the manifestation of the conflict via super-powered heroes: Black Adam vs the JSA. Even though the second becomes more prominent, the story gives enough nods to let us know that the first hasn’t been forgotten in the depiction of the chase for the Eternium crown. By the time we get to the revelation of Sabaac himself, we as an audience have come to a point in the conflict where the JSA and Black Adam have agreed to work together…displaying in a macrocosmic sense that the threat the outside world posed has given way to a larger one…one that we see manifest within Black Adam himself at this point in the movie. He can be a great hero or bring great destruction. Sabaac here isn’t a villain, per se, as the manifestation of the darker nature of Kahndaq itself and both the country and its champion have a decision to make: to become a great hero or a great destroyer. Of course, being a superhero movie, we know how this is going to turn out…even if Adam himself is more anti-hero than straight up superhero. So, is there a main villain? Yeah, Intergang…and they’ve been present throughout the film, Sabaac himself just being the ultimate manifestation of them. That said, no, I don’t feel like the ‘villain’ of the film was two-dimensional exactly, it was simply different from what we usually associate with these types of films.
Now, there is one negative that I do have to address. I mean, I get why they did it, but come on…a kid??? Yes, Dr. Tomaz has a son and of course he becomes central to the story. Ugh. Look, when you introduce a kid into a film, more often than not, it’s a recipe for disaster. [Pacific Rim Uprising, we’re looking at you. – Ed.] The fact that the kid here, Amon played by Bodhi Sabongui, takes a very John Connor in Terminator 2 role just simply doesn’t help at all. Amon wants Kahndaq’s superhero to rival those of the west, so he tries to teach Adam the ropes of what we as audiences associate as the tropes of being a superhero. Using Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as templates, Amon tries to school Black Adam, who is simply having none of it. Kind of like me. Where the T2 comparison becomes dead on is when Amon insists that Adam needs a catchphrase: “Tell them the man in black sent you.” Hasta la vista for the 21st century, folks. The role degrades as the film moves on, Amon becomes the holder of the MacGuffin and as such, is the focus of some cat and mouse action, then the usual kidnapping and the ever-tropey “give us the MacGuffin and we’ll give you the child” rubbish. Now, if this is what the negative reviews are keying in on when saying the film’s story is cliché, then yeah, I’m right there with them.
One last point to this review. Of course, The Rock has been plugging that “the hierarchy in the DC Universe” changes with this film and whether or not he knew it at the time, yes, it does. At the time of this writing, only one week after the release of the film, it’s been announced that DC finally has its Kevin Feige in the persons of James Gunn and Peter Safran. Also blowing up is the news that Henry Cavill is back as Superman. The hierarchy has indeed changed! The thing is though…is there a plan? Because whether it knows it or not, Black Adam has planted plenty of them. The most obvious being the post-credits sequence…spoiler warning on the worst guarded secret ever…there will likely be a tussle between Adam and Supes. It’s worth asking though, what about Intergang? Did the writers insert them for a reason? After all, the Snyder Cut of Justice League ended on the lingering threat of Darkseid and his legions from Apokolips. For those of you who know your comics history, it just so happens that Intergang is rather tightly woven in Kirby’s Fourth World, being supplied with Apokoliptican technology. And sure enough, the weapons and vehicles Intergang uses in the film are far more advanced than we’d typically see in a Middle Eastern micro-nation. Will Gunn et al run with this in a way that Marvel would? Was this name-drop intentional and a hint of things to come? Or, will it suffer the same fate as many of these sort of nods in the DCEU: a deep reference that’s simply there for an easter egg and that’s it…no implications, no ramifications, zilch. I’m clearly in no role to speculate, but if Intergang is a meaningful thread to follow, then it’s not very hard to come up with a scenario where Superman and Black Adam come into conflict that doesn’t bruise Johnson’s ego in any way…as well as fulfilling the ‘evil Superman’ that Snyder’s films hinted at. All you need to do is take a page from the Legends crossover right after the original Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up and reinterpreted by the closing episodes of the Bruce Timm helmed Superman animated series: Superman’s been brainwashed by Darkseid and set loose on the Earth. There you have a circumstance where Black Adam would certainly rise up to fight. But, I’m not on the payroll and I’m sure they’ll come up with something better.
If we’re being honest, Black Adam doesn’t do anything to rock the boat and can certainly be considered formulaic. That said, recipes are also formulas, often yielding our favorite comfort foods. So while it doesn’t offer us anything new or groundbreaking, it takes the tropes of the genre and plays them very well with a charismatic lead, some great action and excellent supporting characters (except for one) and leaves the audience feeling happy, entertained and interested in what’s coming down the pike next. What more do you want out of a night at the movies? Plan for the future or not, formulaic or not, Black Adam is a fun time at the movies with some really stand out performances. Heck, just Doctor Fate alone merits a Happy Cat rating, but thankfully everyone else is at the top of their game too, helping to cement that rating!