(Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Pierce Brosnan, et al. | PG-13 | 2 hr 05 min | Warner Bros.)
Overview: Nearly 5,000 years after he was bestowed with the almighty powers of the ancient gods - and imprisoned just as quickly - Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson) is freed from his earthly tomb, ready to unleash his unique form of justice on the modern world.
Verdict: “Black Adam”, the latest in our current reality of multiple CGI superhero spectacles per year, feels built on paradoxes. Some of those paradoxes are peculiar to this specific story, and others emerge from general recurring issues with the film’s relationship to the DC empire, and superhero films at large.
In this way, “Black Adam” is rarely as egregious an example of superhero malaise as much as the general response to it suggests. And yet, it’s instructive to think of all the way all the things that might work – and occasionally do work – in “Black Adam” feel compulsively neutered by the things that don’t work.
Even as competing conglomerates Marvel and DC feign progressive ideologies in their casting practices, the current slate of superhero cinema still feels hegemonic, whether in its whiteness or in its blinkered Americana. “Black Adam” offers a welcome rejection of both, at first a potentiality that the film finds itself grappling with to diminishing returns.
The story begins thousands of years ago, when a tyrannical king creates the Crown of Sabbac to attain power over the rest of the kingdom. A young boy resists and is given the powers of Shazam, becoming the champion to liberate the enslaved. In present-day in the same kingdom in Kahndaq (a fictional Middle Eastern country), the population is oppressed by Intergang, a crime-syndicate and neo-colonial force stripping the formerly noble country of its glory.
The country needs liberation, and Adrianna Tomaz (university archaeologist and resistor) along with three colleagues ventures in search of the lost Crown, for reasons that are somewhat vague.
They do find the crown, but they also find the tomb of Teth-Adam, supposedly the liberating champion from millennia before. When the search for the Crown is foiled by mercenaries, Adrianna calls on to Teth-Adam for assistance and he awakens.
But Teth-Adam is a vengeful and mercurial figure – laying waste to the country’s oppressors with glee. American agent Amanda Waller is troubled by the appearance of this seemingly unassailable figure and sends four superheroes of the Justice Society (not the Justice League) to capture him. From there things go awry. For the characters, but also for the film itself.
Even when it does, though, “Black Adam” is held together by the not unimportant reality of a superhero film that seems aware of, if not actively engaged in, an antiimperialist stance set primarily outside of the Global North. Yes, much of this is done vaguely in a way that ever so slightly avoids examining actual the complicity of contemporary superpowers in destroying Middle Eastern countries very similar to the fictional Kahndaq.
But it is an effort that feels complex on its own so that one can immediately recognize and even appreciate the potential political commentary even when “Black Adam” declines to do very much with it. A sharply specific tale of Kahndaq and the dynamics of its contemporary characters trying to liberate themselves feels like a visceral possibility for a superhero film, but then for “Black Adam” to justify its superhero existence it cannot be content with being sharply specific. It must look outward, because it must justify its existence with the larger lore of the DC context.
The screenplay (credited to Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani) justifies this by inserting the urgency of the Justice Society’s need to neuter Black Adam. These are consistently the worst parts of the film. Viola Davis’ return as Amanda Waller feels dispensable and each of the four members of the society – Pierce Brosnan as the wizened illusionist Doctor Fate, Aldis Hodge as the stern leader Hawkman, Noah Centineo as the obligatory young upstart in the form of Atom Smasher and Quintessa Swindell as the obligatory ingenue in the form of Cyclone – bring the film to a grinding halt with forced banter that feels unnecessary and particularly incongruous with the actual life and death dynamics in Kahndaq.
The story tries to confront that by some moments where the characters explicitly reject the presence of the Americans, but it feels counterintuitive. Even when the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) characters question the presence of the American superheroes, noticeably absent when the country was being oppressed, “Black Adam” is too bound to the larger machine of capitalism that is DC so it feels unable to really engage with the competing desire to be actually revolutionary.
Even “Black Panther”, a wholly better film that similarly engages with themes of anti-hegemony, is not wholly successful as an anti-imperialistic text. Coogler’s film, as good as it is, has its own messy politics that seems uncertain how to deploy queries of wealth without falling prey to empty capitalistic thirst.
And “Black Adam” is no “Black Panther,” for many reasons; many of them to do with craft. Editors Mike Sale and John Lee feel burdened with the conflicting plots and the film’s own convoluted structure. And Lawrence Sher’s vision of this fictional Middle Eastern country still feels too gauzily yellow in the way that American contexts of these places tend to be. And then there’s the way that the film doesn’t seem as exuberantly in step with the possibilities of its MENA representation. And it’s the MENA dynamic where “Black Adam” finds another unscalable paradox.
Dwayne Johnson, although conventionally and ambiguously Brown (he is half black and half Samoan) is not a MENA actor and although ambiguous ethnicities have been par for the course for much of contemporary cinema with brownness (whether from the Middle East, Pacific Island, Latin America) being an interchangeable currency, the casting feels unwieldy when the film so preciously contextualises Johnson’s Teth-Adam as the champion sent to deliver the specific of this specific country from the foreigners. This fact rests uncomfortably against the film’s central figure, Johnson. Johnson’s own dogged interest in this story has been key to its development but it feels like such an unforced error that the film which explicitly speaks of identity and heroic representation casts an explicitly non-MENA performer as this great figure of liberation.
It does not help that the performance is also not good. Johnson opts to play Teth-Adam’s return after a 4000-year entombment as a robotic figure. He is a Prehistoric God as Terminator. And in the face of Sarah Shahi doggedly devoting so much emotion to Adrianna, the leaden approach to characterisation from Johnson feels like a vacuum of emotion.
Why does Adrianna’s brother spend so much of his time listening to American oldies? Why does the film’s own understanding and valuation of its native culture feel so ambivalent? Why does Johnson’s characterization of Teth Adam feel confined to an American version of postmodern humour rather than something that feels meaningfully engaged with the film’s MENA context? There are too many questions that “Black Adam” shrugs at.
The much-vaunted cameo in the film which many know of doesn’t inspire me to confidence. No fault of the cameo performer but “Black Adam” is best when it turns in on itself. Keeping its story focused only internally. The revelation of Teth-Adam’s existence offers a moment of emotionality drawing a parallel across timelines to emphasise what parents might do for their children. But every attempt to tie it to larger plotty banalities of superhero urgencies feel clunky.
And yet it’s those ties that have assured that audiences are seated. It is compulsory entertainment. You can’t miss this if you want to understand the next and the next and so on. But what happens when their ouroboros approach to its effect end up robbing it of the faint profundity it might create otherwise? As I said “Black Adam” is trapped in a paradox. [A.K.]