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Black Adam isn’t nearly as subversive as it’s meant to be

The overstuffed film has some fuzzy, unclear ideas about heroism

Dwayne Johnson strides toward the camera in a form-fitting black suit with a glowing lightning bolt on the chest as the title character in Black Adam Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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One of Black Adam’s many unnecessary brawls between Dwayne Johnson’s eponymous antihero and the more conventional superheroes of the Justice Society of America takes place in the room of a superhero-obsessed kid. The blows and blasts of the fight rip apart posters dedicated to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, in a visual representation that director Jaume Collet-Serra is trying to distance himself from Zack Snyder and his DC Snyderverse. But the film never makes a convincing argument for what should be built in its place.

Black Adam is overstuffed with underdeveloped concepts and characters that have been done better in other shows and films. Loosely combining plot elements from Black Adam’s arc in 52 and JSA, the film is mostly set in the generic Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq, which was home to the earliest human civilization. Using the same fairy-tale structure as the intro to Black Panther, a lengthy exposition dump at the beginning of the film explains that Kahndaq was conquered nearly 5,000 years ago by a tyrant who enslaved his own people in order to craft a magical crown that would give him demonic powers.

When a young champion had the courage to stand against the king, a group of wizards gifted him with mighty powers — the same abilities that would eventually be given to Billy Batson in Shazam. Imbued with the literal power of the gods, Teth-Adam destroyed the king and his palace, but afterward, he was sealed away, along with the crown. Kahndaq has since become a resource-cursed country ruled by the criminal syndicate Intergang.

Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate and Aldis Hodge as Hawkman give each other a little fist-bump in a scene from Black Adam Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Intergang reads as a substitute for private military companies like Blackwater or Wagner Group, but Black Adam’s three-man writing team doesn’t have the courage to get political about such groups’ role in the world, even as they’re trying to write a superhero spin on the Arab Spring. Academic/tomb raider Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) leads a group with the brilliant plan of rooting the crown out of its 5,000-year hiding place in order to re-hide it elsewhere, all to keep it out of Intergang’s hands. That project goes about as well as efforts to protect a McGuffin always do. Adrianna winds up releasing Teth-Adam, who starts off by frying Adrianna’s captors like a living Ark of the Covenant, then solemnly annihilates an entire Intergang squad to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

All the killing Adam does is meant to be some combination of funny, because he’s so casual about his overwhelming power, and triumphant: He’s liberating his homeland from a group of goons with bad teeth and future-tech powered by Eternium, an obscure mineral in DC lore that acts like Kryptonite for heroes who rely on magic. Here, it’s also basically the DC equivalent of Black Panther’s tech-enabling element vibranium, allowing Intergang to ride around on flying scooters that look like they were designed by the Green Goblin. For a while, the biggest problem Adam has is that he tends to kill people too quickly to properly deliver the heroic catchphrase Adrianna’s son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) insists he should have.

But Adam is too volatile to be left free, according to Task Force X leader Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising her role from Peacemaker and various Suicide Squads). She deploys the Justice Society of America to take him captive. The JSA sternly insists that Adam isn’t a hero, because heroes don’t kill. At the same time, every time they go into action, they cause collateral damage on the scale of Team America: World Police. Refusing to negotiate with Adam or even try to understand his millennia-old perspective, they keep forcing new fights with him — until they inevitably all have to team up to fight the film’s thinly developed true villain, in a CGI-heavy sequence that shares all the problems of the conclusions of Wonder Woman, Shazam, and many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies before them.

Doctor Fate soars above a city in Black Adam Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Watchmen and The Boys deliver much sharper commentary on superheroes as a version of American military intervention. The problem is that Black Adam still argues that superheroes are a net good for the world, and that they deserve their power, even though it continually shows them abusing that power and ignoring the will of the people they claim they’re representing. The writers basically just land on the idea that countries’ right to self-determination means they’re each entitled to have their own representative godlike avatar. The theme of heroes rising up against oppression would also probably have worked better if Johnson agreed to occasionally lose a fight.

Black Adam never develops its JSA members enough to let audiences care about them, which is a problem, since much of the film’s emotional payoff revolves around the bond between their leader, Hawkman, aka Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge), and the powerful wizard Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). While Brosnan brings his usual charm to the role of an aging hero looking to pass the torch to the next generation, there’s never any explanation of what his time serving in the JSA has meant to him or Carter. There’s also a big missed opportunity to create common ground between Adam and Hawkman, who is typically a reincarnating hero from ancient Egypt. The film doesn’t even mention his backstory.

Instead, we get a bunch of time wasted on new JSA recruits Maxine Hunkel, aka Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Al Rothstein, aka Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo). They mostly seem to be in the movie to add youth interest and a minimal romance plot, and to inject more colorful powers into all the battles, which feel cribbed from Captain America: Civil War. The colorful way Cyclone whirls is admittedly stunning, but Al is bumbling comic relief as a version of Ant-Man who can only go big. There’s huge overlap in the power sets of characters between DC and Marvel, and the MCU has a massive edge in that it’s beaten DC to the punch in putting many of those characters on screen, which leaves DC’s versions feeling derivative. But Black Adam is also packed with slo-mo high-def sequences that feel cribbed straight from Zack Snyder’s 300, so Collet-Serra doesn’t seem overly concerned with visual originality.

Quintessa Swindell as Cyclone uses her wind powers in a swirl of blurred CGI color in Black Adam Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Waller’s presence and a quick cameo from her lieutenant Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) are a reminder of better, more subversive comic book stories like Peacemaker, which provides a far deeper view on why heroes shouldn’t kill. The creators could have even stood to take some notes from Marvel’s irreverent and far more tightly written Venom movies. The writers keep inserting new facts about Kahndaq and the evil crown all the way through Black Adam’s third act, whereas Venom: Let There Be Carnage largely boils its exposition down to the titular alien symbiote freaking out when he first sees the villain Carnage, because he’s a red symbiote, which is apparently all the audience needs to know.

The best criticism of Black Adam might have been made by Johnson himself, well before the movie came out, in the post-credits sequence for DC League of Super-Pets. As Black Adam’s canine companion Anubis, Johnson notes that being an antihero is “basically exactly like a regular hero, except way cooler. You make up your own rules and then you break them. Also, you can ignore most moral and ethical conventions because no one can stop you.” Black Adam’s take on antiheroism never really contradicts that pointed takedown. The film is so focused on the idea of a black-clad mass murderer being cool that it doesn’t ever answer the questions it starts to raise about what code a hero should live by, or where the limits of redemption lie. In that regard, Black Adam is just like the many other mediocre superhero movies it plays at subverting: It’s more focused on spectacle than on critiquing the genre, or developing any of the deeper themes it feints at exploring.

Black Adam is in theaters now.

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