More than a Man, Less than a Disaster
Black Adam: A Reevaluation
Since we're apparently doing "Shazam Week" here on Asteroid G (see also: Shazam!: Fury of the Gods Review, Spoiler Discussion, and Shazam vs. Black Adam), it seems only fair to go back to the previous movie in this set and see if it really was bad enough to sink this entire franchise. I thought the film was dumb but fun when it came out last year. Certainly not worth building an entire franchise around, but amusing enough in its own time. Now, though, I wanted to really think if, with hindsight, the film might just have been an odd little gem. It's a mixed bag, for sure, but there is some merit to this mess.
The thing to remember with Black Adam (previous review) is that the film was a passion project for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for years. When the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. started up almost immediately a whole host of films were pitched. Heroes that would show up, crossovers that would happen, spin-offs that would flesh out the cinematic universe. A Black Adam film was on the list even before Shazam! was on the list, but for various reasons the film kept getting kicked down the road. It took 10 years from pitch to completion for Black Adam to happen, and the Rock was deeply involved the whole way. He willed the film, basically, into existence. It was his movie.
In one respect you basically can't have Black Adam without the Rock. Not only did he make it happen but he's also one of the few people with the right size and shape to embody this giant, hulking meta-human. Anyone else would have had to bulk up to try and get anywhere near the right amount of muscles, but the Rock came pre-built, basically. Like Arnold back in the 1980s, the Rock is a walking special effect; he is the action star and the movie bends around him.
That, though, is also the problem. The Rock in Black Adam doesn't really play Black Adam; he plays the Rock. He's got snark and snarl but there's that inherent Rock-ness about his character that he never shakes. We're supposed to believe he's an anti-hero but neither the film, not the Rock's performance, sells us on that. Sure, he kills a lot of people in this movie (shit tons of people, really), but when all those people are bad guys that wouldn't think twice about killing, it's hard to get worked up over it. By comparison Black Adam is a hero. We needed an actor that could sell the evil lurking in the character and the Rock doesn't do that.
Everything around Black Adam struggles with that problem. The human characters that are aligned with Black Adam feel like they're there to give him an immediate "found family". "We ground him," you can hear them saying, but this is a character that really shouldn't be grounded. The film tries its hardest to turn him into a conventional superhero, sanding off all his edges, until we're left with someone that pretends to be big and bad but he's nearly as much of a boy scout as SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. by the time the credits roll (making Big Blue's cameo in the stinger all the more superfluous).
So yeah, the Black Adam side of the film suffers. It's better on the second viewing when you know his whole back story and you can kind of see what the film hints at (while never really succeeding) but still not great. What really does shine, though, is the Justice Society. This group, led by Hawkman, does all the heroic stuff you'd expect from heroes. They're bright, they're flashy, they quip a lot, and they talk about doing the right thing for the right reasons. Plus, frankly, they look bad ass. The first time Hawkman unfurls his wings you're sitting there going, "damn, now that's a hero."
I felt that way about all the heroes, really. Doctor Fate is a character I would have thought was unfilmable. Hell, his appearances in various animated properties have always felt underwhelming. But between the performance by Pierce Brosnan (who had solid regality to the hero) and some fine-ass CGI, the character works really well. Hell, the other new, lesser heroes also get time to shine. Quintessa Swindell brings lightness, intelligence, and grace to Maxine Hunkel / Cyclone, while Noah Centineo gets to have fun as the doofy Albert "Al" Rothstein / Atom Smasher. Everyone on the Justice Society team gets to have fun being heroes and they add a lot to this film.
The movie also makes a pass at the place superheroes have in this world. Khandaq, the fictional country that is the home for Black Adam and this site of this film, has been under Intergang rule for a couple of decades, and yet the Justice Society (and the Justice LeagueThe premiere team at DC Comics, their version of the Avengers (which actually came before the Avengers and, really, has existed in some fomr since the early 1940s), the Justice League is the team-up to end all team-ups, featuring some of the most popular, and longest running, characters in all of comics history (and also Booster Gold). for that matter) haven't set foot in Khandaq once before now. Where were they to fight the oppression and free the people. But once Black Adam shows up, he being the champion of the people, suddenly Hawkman and Co. arrive to fight him. They aren't there to battle Intergang, they just want to "keep the balance". They're rightly called out on that stance leading to some political thoughts that are worth having.
Of course, then the film devolves into a battle between Black Adam and a CGI demon with similar powers, and the movie kind of loses the thread. Black Adam fighting Intergang against the wishes of the Justice Society actually made for an odd and compelling battle of wills. Black Adam fighting a CGI demon was just silly. It drains the energy from the film right when it needed to pick up. The climax does feel lackluster and that ruins the experience some. But having the Justice Society go toe-to-toe with Black Adam is thrilling. It makes you wish we could see more of this superhero team and, occasionally, deal with Black Adam horning in on their business. Those are films I would watch.
The best thing I can say about Black Adam is that I enjoyed the film a lot while I watched it for a second time. It's a lot of fun watching the anti-hero kill bad guys without remorse. There's dark, hilarious glee to be had from hi just not giving a shit and ripping every enemy a new one. The film knows exactly what it wants to be when he curls his fist and unleashes his lightning. If it could have stuck to that it would have been perfect. Black Adam killing dudes with the Justice Society there to act as his foil. We don't even need a villain then as we have enough personalities to carry the day. Everything beyond that gets in the way of the fun.
But it is fun. It's a grand old time just watching dudes pound the shit out of each other, with the occasional quip. I enjoyed the movie the second time around, and my wife got right into it despite it being her first viewing. It hooked us in and gave us something fun to watch and, really, what more do you need from a superhero film?