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I don’t need a box for my lunch.

Movie

Black Adam
(2022)

 

So, is the future of DC being nudged forward by The Rock, desperate to claim his latest movie was a hit, actually – sure, it’ll scrape its costs back through ancillaries, but that’s hardly something to crow about – or is it in the hands of dead James Gunn, hailed by fans dismissing all those tweets he deleted as nothing to get concerned about, who plans to thoroughly disembowel the last remnants of the Snyderverse under the banner of offering a united DCU across all platforms? Which means, what, giving DC more product in the vein of The Suicide Squad? Which bombed. Black Adam is surprisingly watchable, at least until the standard overblown superheroic finale, Surprising, as its advertising announced it as markedly missable.

Amon: The superhero industrial complex is worth a lot of money.

But the Gunniverse… What’s going on there? An exercise in showcasing public self-denial (they were just tweets)? A plan to do for DC/Warner Bros what Kennedy is doing to Lucasfilm and Feige to the MCU? That is, destroy it for good. Which, when you think about it, would merely be a teaser to the response when the same public discover what the makers – or at least, some of them – of their most beloved movie franchises were actually like (not adoptive parent material). There’s already been backlash to the prospect of losing various of the Snyder alumni, so this may all be a holding pattern for something else. Who knows. They’ve still got Ezra Miller incoming in the Flash movie, an entire grab bag of bad publicity (but again, is this intentionally bad publicity?), “Lady Gaga” in the Joker sequel and Aquabro 2, but the cash-poor WB seems more than happy to take a wrecking ball to properties (Batgirl). It may be the company is being gutted for reasons yet to become clear. You know, the way Disney will no longer exist once the dust has settled.

But Black Adam... This really isn’t bad. Its issue – per the advertising – is simply that it isn’t distinctive enough, either as a story or as branding. There’s nothing really “must-see” about The Rock glowering in a cape, and evidently not enough about having Henry Cavill’s cameo dangled as an added incentive. The movie looks entirely generic and of-a-piece with the Snyderverse, which is to say, Jaume Collet-Serra is much more suited to superhero spectacle and scale than attempting the action-comedy hijinks of Jungle Cruise. He’s an action journeyman, and dependable and coherent in what he assembles, always a bonus, but he broadcasts the entire movie at one volume, and when it comes to the additional music cues, the likes of Kanye and Eric Zayne, you feel like you’re being actively assaulted.

Doctor Fate: I suppose they didn’t have doors in your day.

Johnson’s curation of Black Adam was always something of an anomaly. It wasn’t going to get a standalone without him actively championing the project, and no one was demanding it, or him in the role (or the variation on the character he ends up playing here). To a degree, his claims for the movie’s performance are fair enough; its business has been in the ballpark of every upper-end hit he’s had outside of Fast & Furious and Jumanji (so outside of ensemble pieces), and was anyone really expecting it to gross much more than Shazam! (of which it is, essentially, a spinoff)? The problem is entirely that it cost much, much too much.

The character curiously takes Johnson back to the start of his movie career and The Mummy Returns, as an exhumed force of destruction who ends up a villain through circumstance rather than express intent. Writers Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshivarni pull a reasonable switcheroo in revealing that Teth-Adam was not the hero of Kahndaq of four-and-a-half centuries earlier; it was his son, and the picture’s greatest superpower is that Adam is an antihero, consistently doing the right thing but his way, which means killing bad guys with impunity.

The Justice Society, whom I’d never heard of, duly rock up in an attempt to restrain him, with ineffectual results, and they’re decidedly so-so in realisation. There’s a hint of Watchmen’s Minutemen in utilising an antique property (replaced by Justice League, effectively, but kept alive in various iterations), but they’re insufficiently distinct as individual members. Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) are junior members, Storm and Ant-Man variants, give or take, with added klutzy komedy from the latter. Hawkman (Adlis Hodge) inevitably suggests Falcon, but with a sillier costume. And while Hodge ensures his position against Adam’s flagrant behaviour is an insistent source of conflict, the performance is very one-note. Indeed, only Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Strange-variant Doctor Fate confers any grace on the Hawkster by claiming him as a dear friend, and Brosnan makes for the only performative still point in the movie.

I say Brosnan. I don’t know for a fact that’s a pretend Pierce, but let’s put it this way, if in 2012 your star is seen sporting a Vril-ish shiner when out and about on the town, the last thing you’re going to claim to allay suspicions is that it’s movie makeup he just happened to leave on at the end of the day.

Notably, the big villain of the piece is a full-on Satanist, such that Ishmael (Marwen Kenzari) is inscribed with horns and an inverted pentagram on his chest when he’s transformed into Sabbac (he’s empowered by the demons of Hell, appropriately enough: Sata, Aym, Belial, Beelzebub. Asmodeus and Crateis, it says here). That, combined with the voiced debate on good and bad, had me wondering if there was an intentional subscript here. The movie is, after all, starring White Hat Johnson. But as can be evidenced by the likes of Putin, being a White Hat is a very broad church. Being a “good guy” is not a necessary qualification. Rather, not being a certain sort of bad guy is.

So Adam is told by Hawkman “There is no ‘we’ here. there are only heroes and there are villains”. One might see the Justice Society as a global police force, akin to the UN, and therefore not really autonomous and in favour of truth and justice. “Our mission is to protect global stability” we are told, and that, in order to “restore peace”, they “will use force if necessary”. Adam, officially a bad guy, is celebrated by the people, exclaiming “Long live the champion!” In response to the claim “He is not a hero”, Adrianna says “Tell that to all the people he just liberated” along with a dismissive “Go and protect international stability somewhere else”. It’s almost as if there’s a parallel here to another globally despised leader who nevertheless provoked a groundswell of adoring proles in his wake.

Karim: Don’t worry. I die by electricity!

And on the White Hats front, Adrianna is also dismissive of this UN’s approach, whereby they “Split the world into good and bad – that’s easy when you’re drawing the line”. So there are some interesting debates ideas being floated here. The problems are that the generic invades at every turn. The Satanist villain is utterly anaemic in terms of hissability and even more so with regard to his engorged motion capture/CG appearance. Hero-worshipping son-surrogate scamp Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) is not only precocious – complete with a meta-lecture on DC marketing – but also far from the most versatile of performers. Mohammed Amer fares better as Adrianna’s fat Komedy brother, but again, we’re in the sphere of the formulaic. The less said about the citizens rising against undead hordes with “These are our streets!” the better. And what to make of the citizens’ triangle hands sign? Surely its equating Adam with the world dominion of the Illuminati? Isn’t it? 

That’s the problem with trying to discern White Hat intent in Dark Hollywood. Much of the time, one could make an obverse reading (after all, isn’t Adam, as a bad guy evoking sympathy, in the lineage of the rehabilitated Disney villains?) However the DC eventually shakes out, Black Adam never made much sense as a property to hinge bets on. It has little cachet in and of itself, so it’s essentially a Rock movie, its status to be judged on that basis. Consequently, given his historic indifference to a quality bar, it doesn’t land too badly, all told.

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