Talking Movies: Black Adam

Talking Movies

Released: 21 October 2022
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Distributor:
Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $195 to 200 million
Stars:
Dwayne Johnson, Marwan Kenzari, Sarah Shahi, Bodhi Sabongui, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Quintessa Swindell, and Pierce Brosnan

The Plot:
After nearly five thousand years of imprisonment, Teth-Adam (Johnson), an ancient magical champion said to have liberated Kahndaq, is unleashed into modern times. His brutal form of justice attracts the attention of the Justice Society of America (JSA), who try to stop his rampage and bring him into custody whilee investigating a centuries-old evil force whose power matches that of Teth-Adam.

The Background:
Following the incredible success of Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman, Fawcett Publications looked to get in on the superhero craze. While the initial plan was for a team of heroes, Ralph Daigh combined them into one superpowered entity to directly oppose Superman. Originally dubbed “Captain Thunder”, trademark issues led to artist Pete Costanza suggesting the name “Captain Marvelous”, soon shortened to Captain Marvel, and the character proved a big success. Captain Marvel soon became a franchise all unto himself after sharing his powers with a colourful extended family and, about six years after his debut, he and his Marvel Family met their dark opposite in the form of Black Adam, a corrupted version of the Big Red Cheese. Although Black Adam only appeared once in Fawcett’s original run, he saw a new lease of life after the publisher was absorbed into DC Comics, becoming a complex anti-hero often as reprehensible as the villains he opposed. Ranked as one of comics most interesting anti-heroes, Black Adam has featured in animated ventures but this live-action adaptation has spent nearly twenty years in Development Hell. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been attached to the role since the project first stumbled to life in 2006 and, given Johnson’s prominence in Hollywood, the decision was made early on to keep Black Adam separated from Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019) in order to best capitalise on his star power before an inevitable confrontation with Billy Batson/Shazam (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi). Initial plans to feature Black Adam in The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021) were scrapped in favour of pitting him against the JSA. Johnson was keen to play up the character’s no-nonsense nature and went all-in with marketing Black Adam as a game-changer in the DC Extended Universe. After numerous delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Adam finally released to mixed reviews; as of this writing, the film has made nearly $153 million at the box office but, while many praised The Rock’s performance and the implications Black Adam has on the future of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), others took issue with the film’s conflated plot and pacing, though all involved (and especially Johnson) were adamant that Black Adam represented a new phase of the DCEU.

The Review:
What a strange, long, and winding road this film has been on; it’s been in production for so long that I was starting to wonder if it would ever come out, especially after the character failed to appear in Shazam! I kinda get why he didn’t; it’s possible that the Rock’s star power would’ve dwarfed that movie’s heart-warming, handholding introduction to this side of the DCEU and people always complain that superhero films rely on the dark doppelgänger trope too much, which I get, but I think the contrast between Black Adam and Captain Marvel helps to elevate the latter into a more wholesome hero. Black Adam also would’ve been a great fit for either of the Suicide Squad films, especially the God-awful first one, but I do understand the idea of capitalising on the Rock’s star power to give him his own feature film, even if I don’t fully agree with it or his insistence on hyping up a clash between him and Superman (Henry Cavill) rather than him and Shazam, which would be my first choice, but maybe all three could meet up in a future movie, that would be a happy compromise. I am pretty familiar with Black Adam, though; I’ve read a bunch of his stories, especially during his time on the JSA, and really dig his no-nonsense attitude and the complex relationship he has with Captain Marvel, which is aways one clash of ideals away from degenerating into all-out war. I also really hope that the Rock is committed enough to the role that he sticks around for a bit; obviously, Dwayne Johnson is a massive Hollywood star and is in high demand so I do wonder about his longevity in the DCEU, especially considering how quickly Ben Affleck burned out (and I was worried that he would when he was cast), but he’s pursued the role for a good ten years and really threw himself into the marketing so I’m hoping he gets to reappear a few more times, though I do somewhat disagree with the idea of rebuilding the DCEU entirely around a character like Black Adam instead of, say, Superman. Black Adam gets off to a shaky start, with a ten-to-fifteen-minute opening and narration that rushes through the titular anti-hero’s origins in ancient Kahndaq and sets up the McGuffin that much of the film’s plot revolves around. Centuries ago, a tyrant named Ahk-Ton (Kenzari) enslaved Kahndaq and forced its people to dig for a rare and incredibly powerful mineral known as “Eternium”, the only material powerful enough to force the Crown of Sabbac, an item powerful by six demonic entities from what can only be described as Hell.

Awakened in modern times, Teth-Adam’s violent ways earn him the adulation of the oppressed Kahndaq.

Kahndaq’s spirit was well and truly broken but one boy, Hurut (Jalon Christian), dared to try and inspire an uprising. For this, he was sentenced to public execution but, at the last second, was spirited away to the Rock of Eternity and infused with the stamina of Shu, the speed of Horus, the strength of Amon, the wisdom of Zehuti, the power of Aten, and the courage of Mehen by the Council of Wizards. The legend becomes sketchy after the defeat of Ahk-Ton, but Kahndaq has revered their Champion ever since, with great statues erected celebrating their saviour; in modern day Kahndaq, their symbolism has all but faded thanks to the oppression of Intergang, a mercenary military force that has imposed martial law throughout the city and is seeking to strip it of all its natural resources. With Kahndaq virtually a police state, young Amon Tomaz (Sabongui) echoes the rebellious spirit of Hurut in his desire to fight back against their oppressors, but his mother, Adrianna (Shahi), is more concerned with keeping him safe from reprisals and tracking down the legendary and forgotten Crown of Sabbac to keep it out of Intergang’s hands. Here efforts lead her, her bumbling technician brother Karim (Mo Amer), and Ishmael Gregor (Kenzari) to a mountain where they successfully recover the crown but, after being accosted by Intergang’s forces, Adrianna speaks the magical word of Shazam to awaken the Champion from his long slumber. Thus, Teth-Adam arrives, garbed in a form-fitting black suit and sporting both the Wizard’s (Djimon Hounsou) lightning symbol and a hooded cape and immediately dispatches the Intergang thugs without mercy or quarter. His superhuman speed, strength, and command over lightning make him virtually indestructible to all man-made weapons; his skin is only pierced by Eternium, and his powers even allow him to cauterise and recover from wounds in moments. Bulletproof and capable of reducing a man to a chargrilled skeleton or a pile of ashes with a single bolt of lightning, Teth-Adam lays wastes to the armed thugs but, in the chaos, notably makes the effort to save Adrianna from being crushed by a falling boulder. A stoic, grim-faced man, Teth-Adam tears through Intergang with ease, mocking their “weak magic”, catching bullets, and swatting aside missiles like they were nothing. When he’s injured by an Eternium blast, Adrianna and Karim take him back to their flat to recuperate; there, he quickly learns English (how is never explained but I’ll assume it was through the wisdom of Zehuti) and is accosted by Amon, who very much fills a similar role to Frederick “Freddy” Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) in Shazam; he’s an absolute superhero nut, with posters and comics and action figures of all of DC’s heroes plastered around his bedroom, and enthusiastically runs down the gamut of Teth-Adam’s powers and tries to teach him to embrace his role as a superhero, somewhat similar to young John Connor’s (Eddie Furlong) relationship with the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). However, Teth-Adam has about as much interest in being a hero as he does using doors or being polite; he simply floats and flies around, barging through walls, spouting his dogma regarding lethal force to Amon, and rejecting claims that he’s Kahndaq’s fabled Champion. Despite this, he does have something of a moral code; when Intergang arrive looking for the crown and put Amon in danger, Teth-Adam continues his merciless slaughter, amusingly struggling to deliver the-ass one-liner Amon taught him as he kills people too quickly for such traditions and attracting the attention of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).

Black Adam’s rampage brings him into conflict with the morally-righteous Justice Society.

Oddly, Waller’s first port of call isn’t the Suicide Squad or the Justice League, but Carter Hall/Hawkman (Hodge) of the JSA; it seems Waller has been reconfigured into a character more akin to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), someone who recruits and directs a variety of metahumans, which I find is an ill-fitting role for her and I would’ve preferred to see her interaction with Hawkman tweaked or removed entirely and saved her appearance for when they bring the depowered Teth-Adam into custody later in the film. Regardless, Hawkman recruits his old friend and team mate Hector Hall/Doctor Fate (Brosnan) and two rookie metahumans, Albert “Al” Rothstein/Atom Smasher (Centineo) and Maxine Hunkel/Cyclone (Swindell), to intercept and subdue Teth-Adam in Kahndaq. I really like the inclusion of the JSA here; it’s fitting, given that Black Adam spent some time with the team in the comics, and helps to open up the DC Universe to new heroes and stories, while also not overshadowing Teth-Adam with more recognisable heroes. Unfortunately, we don’t learn a great deal about them; Atom Smasher and Cyclone are relatively one-dimensional, despite a budding attraction, Al’s need to consume food to maintain his size-changing abilities and desire to live up to his uncle’s (Henry Winkler) legacy and a brief mention of Cyclone’s traumatic background. Similarly, there’s a history and a strong bond between Hawkman and the mysterious Dr. Fate that is only briefly touched upon; we learn nothing about their origins, the nature of their powers, or even their limits. Dr. Fate is able to see visions of the future through his magical, alien helmet and conjures doubles of himself, mystical barriers, and crystalline weapons and Hawkman clearly has some form of superhuman durability since he can go toe-to-toe with Teth-Adam, as well as sporting his trademark wings and mace, but Black Adam doesn’t waste any time digging into the depths of the JSA’s background. Instead, they’re there as a peacekeeping force, one who strive to set an example to the world and their peers by upholding justice and sparing lives, rather than taking them. This not only contrasts with Teth-Adam’s more totalitarian methods and leads to many a conflict, both physical and philosophical, with the team (especially the proud and hot-headed Hawkman) but also raises the ire of Adrianna and Kahndaq. After decades of oppression and being left to fend for themselves, she and her fellow countrymen reject the JSA’s involvement and holier-than-thou attitude, especially as Hawkman’s temper and Atom Smasher’s inexperience leads to more damage to their country. Indeed, Kahndaq openly cheers for Teth-Adam, revering him as their Champion and approving of his more direct, lethal measures, a feeling Adrianna also shares despite her wishes to spare Amon from inflicting violence upon others. Teth-Adam is doing what needs to be done and actually fighting back against the likes of Intergang, whereas the JSA and the wider world simply ignored Kahndaq’s problems, thus casting the JSA in an interestingly villainous role as they go to great lengths to try and end Teth-Adam’s rampage before his rage gets out of control.

Despite their technology, and being possessed by a demonic force, Intergang is little threat to Teth-Adam.

Their justification comes from having access to ancient texts that detail that Teth-Adam isn’t as righteous as Kahndaq believes; it turns out that, while Hurut was celebrated as Kahndaq’s Champion (Uli Latukefu), Teth-Adam and his wife, Shiruta (Odelya Halevi), paid the price with their lives. When Hurut shared his powers with his father to spare his life, he left himself vulnerable and was killed by Ahk-Ton’s assassins, driving Teth-Adam into a murderous rage so severe that the Wizard was forced to imprison him to contain his power and anger. Now unleashed into the world, the JSA bsaelieves that it’s only a matter of time before history repeats itself and, when Hawkman’s attempts to instil qualities of mercy into Teth-Adam fail (despite almost all of DC’s superheroes having a notable body count), the JSA attempt to force him into submission or to speak his magic word so he can be delivered into Waller’s custody. Ultimately, it’s Teth-Adam’s rage that sees him willing return to his mortal form (Benjamin Patterson) and be taken into custody after he accidentally injures Amon with his powers. With Teth-Adam left in suspended animation and unable to speak his magic word, the JSA believe they’ve accomplished their mission but a greater threat emerges from their conflict with Intergang. While Intergang aren’t really much to shout about, being simply a military force to intimidates Kahndaq’s citizenship, they do inexplicably wield Eternium weapons and hoverbikes, though none of this really matter sin the face of Teth-Adam’s awesome power. They’re the very definition of nameless, faceless, disposable goons for Teth-Adam to tear through; I quickly lost count of how many he turns to ash and bones and the film makes his toying with their lives into a bit of a gag. Intergang also disappear for the film’s final act, their threat and control over Kahndaq forgotten in favour of the power of the Crown of Sabbac, a power that Ishmael craves so badly that he not only aligned with Intergang, but betrayed Adrianna, shot Karim (though, thankfully, he doesn’t kill him as Karim is one of the film’s comedic highlights), and purposely put Amon in danger all to claim the crown for himself and to make Teth-Adam so bad that he would kill him. Sadly, for all the gravitas Pierce Brosnan brings to the film and the awesome, charismatic presence of The Rock, Ishmael ends up being a pretty weak villain; I literally forgot he was even in it for big chunks of the movie, and you can see his heel turn coming a mile away. His transformation into a literal devil for the finale isn’t exactly inspiring either, and his final confrontation with Teth-Adam is very similar to the ending of Shazam!, though the primary focus of Black Adam is on exploring Teth-Adam’s morality and methods and this is a very interesting and entertaining aspect of the film so I can ignore the lame villain, though I do think the film would’ve benefitted from someone like Arnold Vosloo in the role instead.

The Nitty-Gritty:
It’s these themes of morality that form the heart of Black Adam; having witnessed the enslavement and subjugation of his people, the death of his beloved wife and child, and the hypocrisy of the Wizard and the Gods, Teth-Adam has been left a cold, emotionless, rage-filled force of nature. This is a very different role for The Rock, one that downplays his usual affable nature in favour of a more stoic demeanour, one that showcases a different side of his charisma. He still has a presence and a biting wit, but it’s one seeped in rage and tragedy; initially, Teth-Adam was a mere powerless slave, one who tried to keep his son from speaking of rebellion, but he was driven into a fury after losing everything and has no qualms about lashing out at those who seek to harm or oppress others. His no-nonsense morality most notably conflicts with Hawkman, who believes heroes shouldn’t kill and tries to emphasise the benefits of sparing lives as it allows one to learn information about their enemy or objective. Teth-Adam is much more direct; even when he begrudgingly teams up with the JSA to rescue Amon, he just flies off and storms Ahk-Ton’s ruins, completely ignoring Hawkman’s plan of attack, an approach that works perfectly well for him as he’s functionally invulnerable. There are some interesting dichotomies at work in Black Adam; Hawkman coms across as a bit of a hypocrite because, while he’s all about saving lives, he does put people in danger with his insistence on beating Teth-Adam into submission and there’s a grey question mark hovering over the JSA’s moral high ground since they only came to Kahndaq’s aid once a superhuman presence emerged there. Similarly, Teth-Adam never harms or kills innocent people; he might claim to have no interest or care for the lives of mortals, but he repeatedly goes out of his way to help Adrianna and Amon and only kills Intergang’s mercenaries, something that the people of Kahndaq naturally cheer for as they just want to be free of their oppressors.

The film looks amazing and is full of fun action scenes, despite some dodgy CGI shots.

Visually, Black Adam is quite the spectacle; the whole movie is shot beautifully, and the costume design is absolutely on-point. The Rock looks like a walking mountain of ashen black in his comic-accurate costume and even the always-ridiculous Hawkman ends up being realised very well onscreen, though I could’ve done without the nanotechnology that allows his helmet to magically form over his head and his wings to fold away. Dr. Fate looks magnificent, if a little rubbery at times since he’s a mostly CGI creation, but the effects fall apart a little when bringing the gigantic Atom Smasher and the wind-bending Cyclone to life; I applaud the filmmakers for choosing such effects-heavy characters but I do think the film might’ve benefitted from picking less visually demanding characters since Atom Smasher doesn’t really get a lot of play (and is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon) and Cyclone just dances around in slow motion whipping up projectiles and dirt. There’s a surprising amount of slow motion here, almost Zack Snyder levels of the effect, as Black Adam goes out of its way to emphasise Teth-Adam’s incredible superhuman speed; for the most part, it works, though some parts that are clearly supposed to be dramatic can come off as a little hokey thanks to The Rock’s grimacing or screaming face lunging at the camera in su-u-per sl-lo-ow mo-tion. Mostly, though, the effects are pretty good; the sequence where the JSA’s futuristic place takes off is a bit over the top and the final form of Sabbac is disappointingly underwhelming, but Teth-Adam’s many fight scenes against Intergang and the JSA work really well. Similar to some surprisingly violent scenes in Shazam!, there’s a level of violence in Black Adam that nicely skirts the limits of what’s acceptable for a 12A film; while there’s no gore or blood splattering everywhere, Teth-Adam rams grenades in people’s mouths, causes aircraft to collide in mid-air, and indiscriminately blasts at his enemies with his lightning and comically sends them flying into the sea or across the screen. Charbroiled skeletons, ashes, and even severed limbs are all over the film as Teth-Adam tears through his opponents without remorse, culminating in a pretty gruesome end for Sabbac when Teth-Adam rips him in two, spilling not blood but molten lava.

While Teth-Adam ultimately chooses to defend the world, the question of his morality is left up in the air…

All throughout the movie, Dr. Fate is haunted by a vision of the future in which the world is reduced to a burning cinder, presumably because of Teth-Adam’s rage, and his good friend Hawkman is killed in conflict. When Teth-Adam finally surrenders and his threat is naturalised, Dr. Fate is disturbed to find his vision remains unchanged; this is because they were too slow to realise that Ishmael’s plan all along was to die at Teth-Adam’s hands so he could meet the six demons of Sabbac in Hell and become their demonic champion. Imbued with their demonic power, Ishmael returns to life as Sabbac, a literal horned demon with a pentagram carved into his chest and with designs of claiming his birth right as Kahndaq’s true ruler (since he’s the last living descendant of Ahk-Ton). Thanks to the demons’ powers, Sabbac sports all the same abilities as Teth-Adam but wielding fire instead of lightning; Ishmael’s humanity is completely consumed by this underwhelming CGI form, which has little motivation other than death and destruction. Although they’re able to battle Teth-Adam and even Sabbac on equal ground thanks to their superhuman powers, the JSA are no match for either of them; in a bid to change the future and save his friend’s life, Dr. Fate willingly meets Sabbac head on and sacrifices himself to free Teth-Adam from his confinement and convince him to live up to Hurut’s example by becoming the world’s saviour. What follows is a pretty intense brawl between Sabbac and Teth-Adam; since both are capable of hurting the other, and yet are also equally matched, there’s a degree of uncertainty about the battle but, thanks to Dr. Fate’s words, Teth-Adam learns to co-operate with the JSA, setting aside his differences with Hawkman long enough for the latter to use Dr. Fate’s helmet to distract Sabbac and allow Teth-Adam to deliver not only his one-liner but a killing blow to the raging demon. In the aftermath, a begrudging respect between Teth-Adam and the JSA is acknowledged, though Hawkman warns him not to step out of line, and Teth-Adam adamantly rejects Kahndaq’s throne and vows to instead be the country’s protector. A mid-credits scene then sees Amanda Waller also warning Teth-Adam, now rechristened as “Black Adam”, against stepping out of Kahndaq; she even calls in a favour and sends Superman to have a chat with him, returning not only Henry Cavill to the DC Universe but also John Williams’ iconic theme, and setting the stage for a showdown between the two that I can only hope will not forget about Shazam.

The Summary:
Truthfully, I was unsure about Black Adam; I still maintain that it’s a little self-indulgent to give him his own solo movie simply because of The Rock’s star power and he’s a strange character to rebuild the mess that is the DCEU around since there’s only so much you can do with him. However, I am a big fan of the character, and The Rock, and was excited by the trailers and the hype surrounding the film, and to see the JSA and Pierce Brosnan in a superhero film. Despite a troublesome start, which rushes through what seems like a whole movie’s worth of story, Black Adam soon found its groove and settled into an enjoyable action romp designed to showcase a meaner side of The Rock, who is clearly enjoying himself in revelling in Teth-Adam’s power. I enjoyed the complexity of Teth-Adam’s character; he’s burdened by loss and rage and not only feels like he has no place in the world but also that he’s unworthy of his powers since his first instinct is the hurt and kill others. The entire film is geared around showing him that he can just as easily b the saviour of humanity, but there’s still a question about his motivations by the finale; he seems content to remain in Kahndaq as its defender, but there’s literally nothing stopping him going out and enforcing his will in the wider world. The JSA came off really well; while we don’t learn much about them and I think I would’ve preferred Atom Smasher and Cyclone to be a little more experienced, they added some visual variety to the fight sequences and nicely opened up the DCEU to new superpowered characters, as well as helping to set an example for the violent anti-hero. While the villains weren’t much of a threat, or very interesting even when turned into a literal demon, but I can overlook that (and some of the wonkier CGI) because of The Rock’s undeniable charisma. The jury’s out on what’s next for Black Adam and how his presence will really affect the hierarchy of the DC Universe, but this was an entertaining spectacle that I enjoyed far more than I expected to.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Did you enjoy Black Adam? Do you think the character deserved his own solo movie, one that skipped over his relationship with Shazam? What did you think to The Rock’s portrayal of the character, his violent tendencies, and the realisation of his powers and costume? Were you also disappointed by the villains? What did you think to the JSA? Would you have liked to learn more about them, and which member of the team was your favourite? What did you think to Henry Cavill’s long-awaited return to the DCEU and where do you think Black Adam will go next? Whatever your opinions on Black Adam, feel free to share your thoughts down below or leave a comment on my social media.

2 thoughts on “Talking Movies: Black Adam

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