Black Adam is the latest superhero flick in an era where there’s one every month of the year and except for its mid-credits scene, the film teeters on unbearable.
WRITTEN BY ANDREW KORPAN / OCTOBER 19, 2022
Credit where credit is due; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the ultimate hypeman. Perhaps he learned a thing or two outside of the ropes during his time in the WWE and working under Vince McMahon. While McMahon has been the pinnacle of selling spectacle, Johnson has become the pinnacle of selling anything under the sun. My roommate in college was a believer in Johnson; he’d wear his Under Armour cutoff hoodies and shoes to the gym, drink Zoa’s like I do coffee and would indulge in any and every film featuring the former wrestling icon. But Johnson has come a long way from dropping “The People’s Elbow” and his eyebrow-raising schtick on the likes of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and is now one of the world’s biggest stars. But you know all of this, don’t you? So why am I endlessly rambling about Johnson’s career? Because he sold you a pile of chicken crap as a “spectacle” much like Steve Yeun’s character in Nope with Black Adam. This film is seemingly a “passion” project from Johnson, but there is no passion to be found. Black Adam is the latest superhero flick in an era where there’s one every month of the year and except for its mid-credits scene, the film teeters on unbearable.
Black Adam is essentially a “fish out of water” tale about Teth-Adam (Johnson) — you’ll get that name change eventually — as he is resurrected after thousands of years being spent imprisoned. This catches the eyes of the Justice Society of America, which is spearheaded by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (a mostly unenthused Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo). I don’t understand the DCEU’s obsession with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) creating teams every time a problem arises. Her track record this far is not favorable and I’d imagine even Nick Fury would be canned if he had as many failed experiments. But alas, the “JSA” is here to save the day. Also involved in this adventure are Isis (Sarah Shahi), and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui).
Perhaps the worst part about the film is that it owes a large bulk of its best moments to other films. Black Adam goes out of its way to mold Johnson into a Clint Eastwood-like figure. Not only is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the TV before Adam so rudely destroys it — do yourself a favor and just watch that film instead — but the film goes as far as parodying the iconic standoff before taking the Raiders of the Lost Ark route. It’s not funny, nor is Johnson half the actor Eastwood is.
I guess on the surface you could say that Eastwood and Johnson are the ultimate representatives of “masculinity” for their respective eras, but Johnson is nowhere near the star or presence that Eastwood was. You sure can see sprinkles of “The Man with No Name” in Johnson’s performance in Black Adam, but, for as shocked as I am to say this, more words from him would’ve been better. The character of Black Adam is supposed to be this stoic figure, but Johnson’s smoldering can only go so far and it appears that he wants his (protein-filled) cake and to eat it too. Is Black Adam a good guy or bad guy, or does he toe the line a la Deadpool? Doesn’t matter, because it’s The Rock!
Say what you want about the person, but while many of Eastwood’s iconic characters were men of few words, they always oozed macho. Johnson may have a bigger physique, but there’s something about The Man with No Name or Dirty Harry that sends chills down your spine. The only thing about Johnson that’ll do that is a sip of his tequila.
That’s not even the worst example of Black Adam’s lack of creativity or sparks outside of the ones Black Adam’s powers provide. And look, I’m no comic book expert — nor would I want to be, frankly — so I’m very well aware that DC may have created a given character before Marvel or vice versa, and I’m also aware that even if a character is not a direct ripoff of one from another company, it could be a subconscious inspiration just how some songs sound alike. It’s damn near impossible to come up with something wholly original — just look at the comic book movie genre — but the Justice Society of America is an egregious example of this.
For starters, most of the characters from the “JSA” feel like a derivative of an existing MCU character. Atom Smasher, for example, has Ant-Man’s abilities, Deadpool’s mask and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker personality (minus the endearingness that makes you actually root for Holland). The whole “happy to be here” and need to impress the veterans shtick has been done before, and much better I might add. I’m sure Centineo is a great guy and I mean no harm by saying this, but the scenes where he flirts with Cyclone are painful to watch. Not in a “cute” way, they brought literal pain to my face. The character of Doctor Fate is very similar to Doctor Strange, and the comparison is only furthered by the fight he has with Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari) is reminiscent of Thanos’ fight with Doctor Strange in Infinity War. Brosnan was a great James Bond and I was thrilled that people in the audience were drooling over his attractiveness — how can he look so good at 69? — but he always seems disconnected and uninterested in the material in front of him. Whether the lack of shots of Brosnan actually in his suit was a conscious decision or not, it would appear that even he knew to stick with the Robert Downey Jr.-like HUD shots as much as possible so that he wouldn’t risk missing out on the payday. Like Marshawn Lynch famously said, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
Cyclone and Hawkman round out of the Justice League Society and while Swindell is fine, I honestly couldn’t tell you a notable thing about the character. She runs fast like The Flash or Quicksilver but gets very little dialogue to make her into a character. Hawkman gets more to do and has his little spat over morality with Black Adam, but for as good as Hodge can be — just watch One Night in Miami if you need further proof — his character is so poorly-written. That struggle of “to kill or not to kill” is certainly the most intriguing part of Black Adam’s story, but it’s unfortunate that Hodge is buried under such bland writing. And that helmet, man, it just looks ridiculous. It’s extremely hard to take someone seriously when their helmet looks the way Hawkman’s does. You cannot elicit any emotion out of it, so I’m left with no choice but to give Hodge a pass for that aspect of his performance.
And what’s up with self-referential projects recently? The recent Disney+ Pinocchio changed the wall clocks to feature almost every classic Disney character ever and while I won’t spoil what happens, She-Hulk’s finale had a massive moment. In Black Adam, Amon is seen with DC comics in his backpack on several occasions. I know that previous films in the DCEU have featured DC comics in the past, but why is it that people read about the heroes that they see daily? There’s probably an answer to this that a DC Comics fan could provide me with, but on the surface, it just seems like someone took the “our heroes feel like the best part of us” line from the Nicole Kidman-AMC ad too seriously.
I am a firm believer that the DCEU has always taken more swings with its visuals than the MCU (bear in mind that swings do not always equal better visuals), but the only notable visuals in Black Adam are in the brief trip to a hellscape and the Doctor Fate-Sabbac fight; though as noted that one is very derivative of things we’ve seen before. Luckily, none of the visuals in Black Adam ever reach the lows of previous DCEU films like Shazam! or Man of Steel, but they also never pop, either.
It’s likely on me more than anybody for having any sort of hope for Black Adam. I respect Jaume Collet-Serra for The Shallows — “shallow” is a word that also fittingly describes Black Adam — but his contributions to the Liam Neeson-kicking-all-ass genre have ranged from innovative (Unknown), to intriguing (Non-Stop), to disgracing the mob genre (Run All Night) and then taking the plot of Non-Stop and moving it from a plane to a train with The Commuter. And Collet-Serra must have some soft spot for theme parks after going from Jungle Cruise to Black Adam. I don’t know when he got attached to this, but a lifetime supply of Zoa must’ve done the trick to pry him away from Liam Neeson.
I’m not trying to imply that Collet-Serra can’t direct, but maybe the comic book genre isn’t for him. The first half of Black Adam includes a couple of needle drops, most prominently being The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” in a sequence that looks like one of those live-action Call of Duty commercials. This is something I wrote down and then came to find out that yes, Call of Duty did use the song in one of their commercials.
And this simply lacks any bite to be taken seriously. You may not like Deadpool, Birds of Prey or The Suicide Squad, but the grittiness of the violence cannot be denied. Not that every comic book film needs this level of violence, but a film like Black Adam needed something to stand out. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
But maybe, just maybe, Collet-Serra gets off the hook because of the writers. The trio of Adam Sztykiel — whose most recent work includes the Johnson-led Rampage and Scoob! — and what I assume is a team of Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani scribed the film. Maybe it’s Sztykiel’s previous experience with Johnson or another factor, but they’re tasked with the misfortune of writing some incredibly cheesy dialogue. Phrases like “I’m not a hero,” or the running gag about sarcasm are almost enough to make you wish for MCU quips — and that’s saying something.
How Black Adam received as much applause as the press screening of Spider-Man: No Way Home is well beyond me. The audience was clapping like seals for a majority of the film which was puzzling because spoiler alert: nothing happens. At least it kept me awake, I guess. Except for the mid-credits scene, the rest of the film is a typical comic book flick. I guess in fairness, some guy attempted to start a round of applause when Johnson first pops up on the screen (thankfully, no one joined him). It’s just strange and I’m becoming concerned that the MCU films have conditioned fans to clap at anything that could be noteworthy. And with the number of superhero movies that are released and the target audiences becoming younger and younger, I’m sure that children could anticipate the plot of Black Adam. That goes right back to the trio of writers on the film who wrote a fine and standard comic book movie, but nothing more.
Lorne Balfe, who’s coming off of a fantastic job on Top Gun: Maverick, scores the film. To be fair, Balfe has a half-dozen projects this year alone so something has to be the worst, but, unfortunately, such a talented composer has his work pushed so far into the background. Sure, there are a few scenes — particularly in the second act — where the triumphant melodies swell in the background, but there’s nothing notable about it. We’ll see if Ticket to Paradise — a rom-com — features better work.
2022 has been a major mixed bag for comic book movies. The Batman still reigns supreme, to no one’s surprise, whereas Black Adam is swimming at the bottom with the likes of Samaritan and Morbius. I’ve never been a big fan of Johnson, and this film didn’t do much to change that feeling. Sure, he’s one of the world’s last remaining movie stars, but what does that matter when he makes films about hanging from skyscrapers and albino gorillas? Perhaps he should’ve just stayed in the Fast & Furious franchise because the inevitable showdown with a certain superhero in the DCEU does nothing for me. And on top of that, this is the film that we’ve been waiting years for? I’m shocked that someone like Johnson would even want to be associated with it considering it brings nothing new to the comic book movie genre — a genre that’s been oversaturated to put it nicely — outside of a new leading man. But hey, take this all from someone who dug Thor: Love & Thunder, a film that social media has conditioned us to hate for whatever reason.