in Shocktober

Black Adam

I was never going to hate Black Adam as much as other people do. For one, I like Dwayne Johnson. I think he’s an interesting person, he’s got oodles of charisma, and a fun take on what a modern movie star should be. Also, since I still care a lot about comic book super hero movies but — as unlikely as it sounds — don’t care at all about the DCEU or the Black Adam character, I’m just about as easy to please as any thinking person who saw Black Adam. Which… there must have been at least a few of us, right? It’s been the most popular movie in the world two weeks in a row. Early buzz about Black Adam described its titular antihero as a super hero version of Dirty Harry. That sounds cool, right? Unfortunately, what we got was a lot more The Enforcer than Magnum Force. And if you get that reference, hi dad! Hope you’re having a nice day.

The story of Black Adam, the movie, begins in 2006. Back then, New Line Cinema, which was not yet owned by Warner Bros. (which was not yet owned by Discovery), was interested in developing a movie based on Captain Marvel (better known now as Shazam thanks in part to complex copyright infringement lawsuits with both DC Comics and Marvel Comics). They approached wrestling superstar and burgeoning acting megastar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who expressed more affinity for playing Captain Marvel’s arch enemy, Black Adam. That was a really smart move; Black Adam looks a lot more like 2006 Rock and Black Adam’s tough guy personality better suits a wrestler’s bravado than Captain Marvel’s wholesomeness. Peter Segal, director of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, even signed on to direct, but by 2009 the Captain Marvel project was in development hell.

Enter the DCEU. Hot off Marvel Studio’s massive success (and the end of The Dark Knight trilogy), Warner Bros. announced the creation of their own shared universe and put out a whole slate of movies they were interested in making. Dwayne Johnson was by then an international celebrity so there was some debate on if it would be wasting his box office draw power on a supporting, villainous role …which is dumb because the best he’s ever been in a movie is when he was in exactly that role. The solution, of course, was to split the movie into two separate origin stories for both Shazam and Black Adam, with Black Adam now becoming an antihero. They also made plans to tease the Black Adam movie by having him appear in cameos in both Shazam! (which he did as a hologram) and Gavin O’Connor’s Suicide Squad sequel (which didn’t get made). Hey, one out of two ain’t bad.

Despite the DCEU sort-of imploding, this version of Black Adam was now inevitable. The last hurdle it had to overcome was scheduling: Johnson’s various commitments pushed the shooting window into early 2020, because audiences deserved Jumanji: The Next Level and Red Notice more, damn it. Then the global pandemic happened, and Black Adam‘s production was bumped another year and a half. This led to one of the many failed DC upcoming slate trailers featuring a weird animated teaser which still confounds me but in retrospect was pretty reflective of the final product. Our next glimpse of the character came in, of all places, DC League of Super-Pets, where Dwayne Johnson pulls double duty as both Bark Kent, Superman’s dog, and Anubis, Black Adam’s dog. I guess there’s a Black Adam post-credits scene in this childrens’ animated film? I’m not going to look on YouTube. Somewhere in there, Jaume Collet-Serra and his merry crew filmed this movie, and it sounds like they kept working on it right up until release. So finally, 16 years later, we got our Black Adam. And it sucks.

Things start out like a bummer version of Black Panther as we learn the tragic history of a fictional kingdom defined by its unique natural resource. Five thousand years ago, there was a mythical advanced civilization somewhere near Egypt called Kahndaq. Everything was great until their king, Ahk-Ton (Marwan Kenzari) became obsessed with Eternium, the rare material that’s only found in Kahndaq and which he believes can be used to forge the Crown of Sabbac, which would give him a huge power up. So he enslaved his people and forced them to dig and dig and dig until he had enough of that shiny stuff to make his special hat. When the last raw chunk of Eternium necessary for the crown is dug up, the slave who found it is killed instead of rewarded. This injustice motivates a young boy, Hurut (Jalon Christian), to steal the ore back and try to inspire the people to revolt. Except whoops, he’s immediately caught and sentenced to death. As Hurut is about to be executed, he’s teleported away and meets the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, continuing to thanklessly toil away in minor franchise roles), who we know loves giving kids super powers. Kahndaq’s new champion destroys the king and his palace, and he (as well as that diabolical crown) are never heard of again.

Today, Kahndaq has become a failed state. The crime syndicate “Intergang” enforces their own order over the city-state thanks to the help of their sweet flying motorcycles. On the miserable streets we meet archeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), who moonlights as a freedom fighter, as she searches for the Crown of Sabbac for reasons that are beyond me. Adrianna is a fellow super hero in the comics and her alias is “Isis,” so the decision to make her a sympathetic terrorist is an interesting, perhaps more politically loaded one than the movie intended. It’s not the only one of its kind. Adrianna works with a rag-tag group that includes her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), her colleague Samir (James Cusati-Moyer), and the shifty Ishmael (also Marwan Kenzari). Also her teenage son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) wants to tag along with his skateboard but Adrianna shuts that shit right down.

Adrianna and the three bros drive Karim’s van seemingly five minutes out of town and park at the base of a ruin, which she easily enters and quickly find the Crown of Sabbac within, just floating there in the middle of a huge room. Isn’t this crown supposed to have been lost for 5,000 years? Has literally no one ever thought of looking for it? If this was set in an American city, it would be like revealing the crown was hidden down aisle 2 of Walmart. Not even like on a shelf, just in the middle of the aisle. While Adrianna grabs the crown, Ishmael kills Samir and a bunch of Intergang thugs ambush Karim. The goons bring Samir and Karim into the big room (assuaging any doubt I had that getting in was trivial) and threaten to kill them unless Adrianna hands over the crown. She surrenders and they throw her down on a weird rune and ask if she has any last words.

With no better option, Adrianna reads the rune (in English, mind you, this movie is plays it fast and loose with languages) and summons Kahndaq’s champion, who is, of course, Dwayne Johnson. Are we allowed to talk about how The Rock plays an Egyptian man in this? With his like exaggeratedly American accent? Is that OK? Are we all fine with this? Anyway, the champ kills fuckin’ everybody. Just on sight, he’s ready to rumble. He’s blasting lightning, catching bullets, moving super fast, and throwing fools in the air left and right. Black Adam must have set the record for most helpless dudes flung in the air in one movie. Ishmael manages to escape and champ spares Karim and Adrianna, but otherwise everyone is dead.

Outside, champ does some more killing while Karim and Adrianna try to drive away. This time, the killing is set to The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It, Black” because Black Adam is dark and also middle-aged. The last Intergang henchman fires a rocket with an Eternium warhead, which manages to knock champ out. Adrianna and Karim decide it’s a good idea to take him with them, so they do that. Even though it was supposed to be really hard to get out of the city, the movie just glosses over how they got back while returning from the direction that a bunch of explosions and a massacre just happened in. Champ awakens in Amon’s room, where Amon is absolutely psyched to meet him. Everybody speaks perfect English, including our champion, who disappeared millennia before English was invented. Amon is like the ultimate fanboy and he and his family recap the champion’s backstory and even fill us in on his name: Teth-Adam. Even though in the flashback champ’s name was Harut? Hmm! Teth-Adam is all like “I’m not a hero” and yada yada yada… for comic relief he keeps flying through walls.

This is the main theme of the movie. People keep telling Teth-Adam he can be a hero and he says that he disagrees. In a big twist that’s been given away in every trailer, Teth-Adam eventually admits that he’s actually Harut’s FATHER and that Harut had given him his powers and died (in a fun subversion of Shazam, instead of turning into a child when he powers down, Teth-Adam just turns into a less muscular CGI The Rock). So Teth-Adam wasn’t actually chosen by Shazam which is why he thinks he not worthy. Amon believes that he’s a hero anyway because he’s a symbol that inspires Kahndaq. Later we’ll learn that Hawkman doesn’t think Teth-Adam is a hero because “heroes don’t kill people.” Which is demonstrably not true in a universe where its greatest heroes – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — kill people all the time. Wonder Woman fought in a war! Not a fantastical war, the real World War I! She killed young men who were fighting for their country! You’re telling me she’s not a hero in this universe now?

With those three arguments made — Teth-Adam isn’t a hero because he doesn’t want to be, he is because he inspires people, he isn’t because he kills — the movie just has those characters repeat them over and over until it ends. Teth-Adam never tries to become a better person and only barely even considers the possibility of changing at all. Because it’s cooler for him to be a badass killer, right? Instead of a character arc it’s fine to just have people shouting their unchanging definition of this arbitrary title, “hero”? After all, Black Adam is merely a two-hour movie, there’s no room to squeeze in much more than CGI characters fighting each other. I get it man, I still like those CGI fights too. I think they look neat — even the screenshots I’ve included in this review look cool to me, albeit blandly color graded and set in a boring location. But this is a film, not a ride, it yearns for character development. At the very least, show us heroes being heroic! I know I hammer it home a lot, but my infatuation with the super hero myth is that I like the idea of mighty people helping us, not being caught in the collateral damage while gods beat each other up. Remember how Dawn of Justice was kind of about this? And The Suicide Squad? And even Peacemaker, I think?

So with Teth-Adam going around killing Intergang people and the crown possibly in play, Amanda Waller (still Viola Davis after all this time) sends the Justice Society (who we’ve never met before) to Khandaq. You might be surprised to learn I’ve got some problems with this. First of all, Amanda Waller is a villain, or at least an antihero. The whole reason she has the Suicide Squad is because real super heroes would not work with someone as devious as her. So how the hell did she become the DCEU’s Nick Fury? Secondly, Black Adam‘s version of the JSA is just the X-Men. Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) leads the team from his enormous mansion where he trains young super heroes and spends the rest of his time flying a stealth jet that comes out of a secret underground entrance and looks a lot like an SR-71. If this is from the comics, I hadn’t heard of it. And even if it is, it should have been changed so that Black Adam could have given us, you know, something new for a change.

That over-familiarity extends to the four members of the JSA as well. Hawkman’s wings and helmet appear and disappear like so many Marvel costumes, making him feel like something between Iron Man and Falcon. Pierce Brosnan appears as Doctor Fate and comes off as a tired, sadder, less magical version of Doctor Strange with a really shiny helmet. At least those two are somewhat fleshed-out characters. Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) makes big wind and is given nothing to do in the entire movie. And Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who can grow real big like Ant-Man, is positioned as this movie’s comic relief in the mold of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. His main contribution is that his uncle is a former Atom Smasher and played Henry Winkler in a brief, early shot-and-shown-on-a-cell-phone cameo. Oh, and at the end Atom Smasher kind of acts like he wants to be friends with Teth-Adam and I think it’s because “Atom” and “Adam” sound alike (no it’s from the comics but too little too late).

So the JSA and Teth-Adam fight a lot. One of the action sequences is set to Kanye West’s “Power” which is an extremely unfortunate association given West’s antisemitism and the fact that this is a movie set in a Middle Eastern country. Eventually Teth-Adam wins the fight but decides to willingly surrender and is put in an underwater prison. No this doesn’t have anything to do with Aquaman, keep your expectations low. Amon and his family are cool with locking him up, even though they previously emphatically argued that Teth-Adam was their hero and the JSA suck. Meanwhile, Ishmael comes back and gets the crown and turns into Sabbac (read: big CGI monster man) and then sends a beam of light into the sky… to summon the armies of hell. Are you kidding me my dude? That’s not the direction hell is in. And I thought we were done with this big laser bullshit trope?

When all hope seems lost, Amon inspires the people of Khandaq to fight the skeleton army and it’s hilariously easy for them to do it. Like one punch and the bonies go down. No problem at all, barely an inconvenience. While that’s going on, the JSA find out they are not match for Sabbac. So Doctor Fate traps Sabbac in a magic force field and uses his psychic powers to inspire Teth-Adam to escape the prison he had just literally minutes before volunteered to go to. Sabbac escapes and kills Doctor Fate but then Teth-Adam shows up in a slightly different costume and defeats Sabbac in a fight that I literally can remember zero details of. Amon asks Teth-Adam if he’s going to stay and he says he will, but he just might need a new name… And that’s it! A few requisite cameos and we’re out of there.

The problems with Black Adam start with a script that had nothing to say and are made worse by a star who is fully invested in everything but trying to do something with the material. It’s full of meaningless action, embarrassing jokes (ask me about The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly homage sometime), and groan-inducing needle drops (you probably don’t even need me to tell you that “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” is used). After 16 long years, Black Adam shows how little The Rock has evolved. He finally has the ultimate wrestling hype reel and it’s a perfect distillation of exactly who Dwayne Johnson is and who he will always be: a tough guy who never loses. And can someone who never loses ever really win?