Sitting in the dark watching Black Adam, I felt genuine despair. A movie with Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Peirce Brosnan, AND Sarah Shahi should be more entertaining. Not that there weren’t things going on. For all its faults, Black Adam tries to be different, albeit halfheartedly.
Jaume Collet-Serra is a director who I’ve enjoyed in the past. From Jungle Cruise to a slew of Liam Nesson action movies, Collet-Sierra has shown an ability to do meat and potatoes action and give us a sense of scope. Lawrence Sher is a cinematographer who has done movies I’ve loathed, such as Joker but also movies I’ve loved, like Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Together they have made a studio movie that feels like every other studio comic-book movie despite its very real potential to be otherwise.
Black Adam isn’t interested in anything other than trying to play catch-up with a rival studio by all but ignoring its output. The script by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani is caught in a tug-of-war. It tries to be about oppressed people and the need for myths to inspire while indulging in the genre’s tropes. The results lead to lifeless interminable scenes of superpowered beings punching each other into buildings. The trio has some lofty ideas buried inside Black Adam, but it becomes clear early on that no one seems all that interested in them.
Or at least the studio wasn’t.
Collet-Serra front-loads his movie with backstory as he tells us the origin of Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson). Sarah Shahi’s Adrianna narrates in a monotoned voice, keeping the audience uninterested for as long as possible. To be fair to Collet-Serra and his writers, the character of Black Adam comes with a lot of mythology. Still, Collet-Serra shows when he should tell and tells when he should show, and in the end, it’s all just a cacophony of backstories and hinted at mythologies.
Black Adam takes place in the fictional country of Khandaq. An occupied country whose’s history is littered with dictators, terrorist regimes, and power structures designed to exploit the people. However, Kahndaq is also the only place in the world where the rare mineral of “eternium” can be found. The properties of “eternium” are vague, except that anyone who can process it can wield great power, such as super-duper rockets, flying motorcycles, etc.
Adrianna, her brother, and her cohorts are trying to find the crown of Sabbac, a crown made of eternium once worn by the evil king Anh-kot, who enslaved his people in the quest for the mineral. Teth Adam (Black Adam) is a formerly enslaved person who was gifted the power of Shazam by the wizards-again there’s a metric ton of backstories here, and I get everybody felt like there was a lot of ground to cover.
If you think this is a lot of exposition, wait until the Justice Society shows up. Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Atom-Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). The JSA shows up to stop the recently released Black Adam because he is an all-powerful Godlike figure, and few things make Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) nervous, quite like people who aren’t afraid of her.
If none of this makes sense, trust me, it doesn’t matter. Collet-Serra and his team craft Black Adam in such a way as to demand disinterest.
Adrianna has a son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who appoints himself as Black Adam’s sidekick. We are a decade into superhero movies, and Black Adam trots out a trope that no one was asking for, the kid sidekick. Amon tries to tutor Adam in the ways of being a superhero, suggesting catchphrases, and telling him to fight. In general, the film shafts poor Sabongui with atrocious dialogue that brushes against being funny. But a sense of humor is not something Black Adam can ever fully grasp.
Black Adam may have had a personality at some stage in its production. But by the time it reached the screen, it had become a Zach Snyder clone without Snyder’s visuals or even a coherent ethos.
For example, much is made of how Black Adam kills people. The JSA has been dispatched to capture him because he kills. I found this confusing because Adam is hardly the only superhero we’ve seen murder people, hardly the first anti-hero, not to mention the people caring about his body count- is the Queen of body counts herself, Waller? Equally as baffling is that the film freely references other heroes like Batman and Superman. Yet, even though Black Adam wields the power of Shazam (Zachary Levi), Shazam himself is never mentioned.
In one scene, a character watching Adam catch a rocket exclaims, “Did he just catch a rocket?” In a world with Superman and Shazam, indeed, someone catching a missile with his hands is not beyond the realm of possibility. Not to mention that by this time in superhero movies, it’s hardly the least plausible thing we’ve ever seen a comic book character do.
After all, we live in a post-Morbius world.
Black Adam is such a clumsy superhero movie that it can’t even figure out how to exist with other superhero movies. A shame because there are moments, such as when Adrianna confronts the JSA, about how they have never once tried to help her country as it was passed from one ruthless organization to the next and have only shown up once someone has tried to free them. While the bit about “heroes don’t kill” stuff feels like it’s from an earlier draft of the movie before other superhero movies came out, it does lend to conversations between Hawkman and Adam about the use of violence, or it could have had Black Adam cared.
Collet-Serra makes Johnson play Adam as a glaring menacing rage-filled, all-powerful being, and Johnson mostly pulls it off. Except, the special effects hamper Johnson’s movements, leaving his movements restricted. Adam will often be hovering or floating throughout a scene, forcing him to give a minimalist performance which is not Johnson’s strong point.
Still, Hodge, Brosnan, Centineo, and Swindell are all great and give their characters a little dimension despite the suffocating plot surrounding them. I’ve long been a fan of Hodge, and if there is any justice in this world, we will get a Hawkman movie because Hodge is worthy of a franchise, and it’s about damn time he is allowed to be a leading man. But knowing how the WB loves shooting itself in the face, we probably won’t.
Johnson doesn’t give a bad performance. When he shares scenes with the JSA, it becomes clear what Collet-Serra is trying to go far with his minimalist performance. His simmering rage, from not only being a formerly enslaved person but from his Greek Tragedy of a backstory, gives us an Adam riddled with an unbridled vengeance. It contrasts nicely with the JSA’s professional maturity and somewhat moral arrogance, giving us glimpses into a much more thought-provoking film than we are ultimately saddled with.
The climax of Black Adam is shockingly generic as it involves a bad guy who, while hinted at for most of the movie, seems to have no real motivation other than ruling the world, natch. So, of course, he calls forth an army of the CGI undead for Adrianna and Amon to fight while Black Adam and the JSA fight a Prince of Darkness for the fate of Khandaq and the world.
Bodies drop, and buildings crumble, yet Collet-Serra never gives any weight to these things. There’s a lifelessness to the action of Black Adam. The climatic battles feel rote, and despite the litany of stakes, I never really cared what happened.
Sher’s visual language gets lost in a bleak lackluster color scheme. The film’s rampant use of special effects forces Sher’s visual language into a dull flatness. However, at times, briefly, we get a sense of Sher’s ability, such as when Black Adam breaks free of his second prison (don’t ask).
However, late in the movie, there is a scene where the JSA, Adrianna, and Adam are gathered around the table to discuss what they need to do. It may seem like a nitpick, but this scene is the worst editing I’ve seen since Bohemian Rhapsody. Another bit of evidence of studio meddling because nothing that I’ve seen of Collet-Serra or Sher would lead me to suspect that they would ever okay such cinematic mumbling.
I’m not saying a director’s cut would make Black Adam a masterwork; it would still have to contend with the age-old superhero problem of too much plot and not enough story. But I am saying that there is a more engaging, considered movie buried deep in the bowels of this generic toy commercial, and it’s a shame we didn’t get that one.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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