Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Norshirvani
There are things about Black Adam, the last venture of the DCEU to not be tainted by a crushing awareness that the DCEU is effectively over, that I appreciate; and one of them is that it wants to be the cinematic equivalent of a superhero comic book in ways that superhero comic book movies don't typically manage. In this case, what we have is a fight issue, the kind that in time out of mind might've been commemorated with its own trading card and have sold itself LOGO VS. LOGO-style on its cover, an essentially real-time dust-up between super-beings with a lot of splash pages, and which sometimes did indeed find themselves pulling the double-duty that Black Adam is itself obliged to pull, that is, telling an origin story at the same time. Here that origin belongs to one Teth-Adam, going by the sobriquet "Black Adam" (but you gotta wait for that), and he is played by Dwayne Johnson, which is the other aspect of Black Adam I appreciate. I'm afraid this isn't because I'm happy for Johnson that he finally got to bring his passion project to fruition after fifteen years of lobbying to play his favorite comic book character. In fact, if that were the reason, I'd probably only be able to be sad for Johnson instead, because nobody liked the movie he finally got to make, on the fair account that the movie he finally got to make is lousy.
This was in no small part, it seems, because it was put off and retooled about a dozen different times, until director Jaume Collet-Serra—in the full-blown mercenary phase of a career that I suppose has never been anything else (even if it includes the splendid B-movie gem of The Shallows)—came aboard to supervise the welding of pre-viz action sequences onto a screenplay made out of kludged-together pieces of several other screenplays, ultimately forging what we'll generously call a functional motion picture.
I make it sound acutely terrible, but other than the length (and at 124 minutes, it's at least briefer than usual), the hack acumen behind it means it's something along the lines of a watchable flavor of bad, so thank goodness for small miracles, though it's filled with enough rankling problems that it's about the lowest it could hit before I stopped calling it "mediocre" and started calling it something worse. Collet-Serra escapes relatively unscathed, but there's dishonor here, like some of the most braindead deployments of pop songs in recent film history, and I'm not sure which is stupider—dropping the Stones' "Paint It Black" on an action scene that nobody was even attempting to choreograph to the rhythms of the song, or spinning up the Smashing Pumpkins' 1995 hit "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" to serve as a sonic backdrop for this film's portrait of contemporary life in the ill-fated semi-Egyptian country of Kahndaq, as such a life is lived by our rebellious teen sidekick figure, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui). Or maybe the Pumpkins are huge in Arab North Africa, I wouldn't know.
What's baffling about that screenplay, however, is the simplicity of its ends, and the diastrous overcomplexity of its means. The plot is whisper-thin boilerplate: Amon's mom, archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), has embarked upon a quest to find the fabled Crown of Sabbac, an ancient Khandaqi artifact of great power, before the insidious forces of the international criminal syndicate Intergang can. When she does find the crown in the tomb of Teth-Adam, buried here along with him five thousand years ago, she almost immediately finds herself under her adversaries' guns, with only her archaeological expertise and the irrational hope that magic words can save her. However, for this is a Shazam! spin-off, that hope isn't so irrational. Thus does she resurrect Adam, who obligingly dispatches her assailants with the godlike powers granted to him millennia ago by the wizards of the Rock of Eternity (mainly Djimon Honsou, in a contender for the most thankless cameo appearance in a superhero movie, so wow). Unfortunately, this spills out into a big enough fight that it gains the notice of the world, who after Kryptonians and New Gods are naturally twitchy about superhumans like Adam, especially given that he's going around killing people for the sin of basically just poking him, even if they are poking him with bullets. And so the Justice Society—principally Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), plus new recruits Atom Smasher (Noah Sentineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell)—heads to Khandaq to investigate this potential global threat and neutralize it.
This is basic superhero writing, and while it can very readily fall into contrivance, it is also very difficult to completely fuck up. "Difficult" is not "impossible," but this is so easy, and so pleasurable in the endless permutations of how X character's powers, personality, and aesthetic interacts with Y's, that it's served as the basis of a thousand comics, and "a thousand" is an extremely conservative estimate. Black Adam does fuck this up, starting with a shockingly generic version of "the Justice Society" that tumbles heedlessly into that unhappy space between "some sort of thought-through concept that we want to position for a spin-off film" and "colorful IP-derived action figures who don't matter, thrown at the screen so we can watch them get slapped around." I realize I'm soiling this with my geek slime, but this really did shock me, because this is a Justice Society stripped of everything that made their comic book counterparts interesting (the briefest summation is "1940s-vintage heroes who fought Hitler-adjacent supervillainy, reconvened in modern times alongside their latterday successors, the selling point being, in comparison to the similarly-named Justice League, some Golden Age nostalgia combined with a cozy, sometimes-fractious depiction of the dynamics of a multigenerational family").
Anyway, it's especially perplexing in the anti-use it makes of the lore that comes pre-loaded for this scenario, since what we have in this particular array of Justice Society members are two characters who are (in the comics, and to simplify) also ancient Egyptians, who, due to the Rule of Fun that would prohibit acknowledging "ancient Egypt" as a vast timeframe spanning millennia, indeed have their own history with Adam. In this iteration, I'm not entirely sure it's established that Dr. Fate is aware of who Adam is. Meanwhile, there are two equally-iconic conceptions of Hawkman, and while "a Black Adam movie" would've pretty strongly indicated, to me, going with the "reincarnation of Egyptian prince Khufu" conception, rather than the "stranded alien cop" one, it drives me nuts that Black Adam instead opts for "fucking neither, asshole, and in fact no conception at all."
This Justice Society is given just enough identity as a group to be grating about it, hastily garnished with a canned "team dynamic" that proposes that they're supposed to have a long, august history without the slightest desire to put any of that history in context, and it makes sense only once you dig around and learn that they're actually just scribbled-in replacements for the Suicide Squads from those movies. Which means that the only thing this screenplay does manage to establish them as is that they're a government-sanctioned strike force who take their marching orders from more-or-less evil bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Which in turn means this gets to be political (two of the credited screenwriters made their name on The Mauritanian), though it has the most inarticulate politics I think I've ever seen in a movie, the result of a process that started with "movies are supposed to have politics now, I think," but didn't have any subsequent steps, so instead it flails about like a stupid person's idea of what smart people sound like.
Things begin to go awry no later than the second sentence uttered in the film, where during one our several backstory dumps, a narrator (this is also Amon) describes ancient Kahndaq as the world's first "self-governing nation," which obviously means something different here than it does in actual parlance, and it sets the bar for how fuzzily-understood jargon is going to be misapplied throughout. Remarkably, it manages to clear this bar when it refers to a "superhero-industrial complex" which sounds like an ominous description of all of the superpowered imperialism going on here, but the subject of the conversation is, like, licensed merchandise, and, uh, how Adam should get in on some of that action with proper branding. For fuck's sake. (Amon's chief value here is helping me understand why many people don't like Edward Furlong's John Connor in Terminator 2. He is, nonetheless, much more obnoxious.) Well, whatever, this is also a superhero film, so the "real-world resonance" is slammed into droning disquisitions about Saturday morning cartoon morality, which in their collisions make the dialogue sound like a cat trying to expel a hairball ("no more extrajudicial killings!"), along with the kind of "Must There Be a Superman?"/"you've done considerable for the purple skins" crap that even at its best (Squadron Supreme, for instance) is never going to be fully satisfying, and at its worst shoves the unreality of the genre into your face. In this case, anyhow, when Amon accuses the Justice Society of being indifferent to Kahndaq's plight, it actually appears he's arguing for more robust American interventionism, which presumably is the opposite of what his movie means to argue.
I've barely left any space to describe why it's not a good motion picture, though, and while I guess it's overall a better movie than it is a screenplay, it's frequently not allowed to be: this thing is fiercely expository, which isn't even that useful during the opening narration (having a monotone kid who clearly has no idea what he's saying narrate was also not the best decision). It's weirdly insecure about its own visuals: Collet-Serra is a competent enough imagemaker to put over the storytelling required to, for example, visually describe "these slaves are working for a tyrant who wants them to dig up a mineral that has magic properties, yet the slaves resent this," without actually needing any narration; but this keeps popping up even in normal scenes, because nobody ever bothered to prune the script to keep the film from resembling somebody describing it to you over the phone. I would like to say it ekes out some minor joys just as a $200 million action flick, and there's bits and pieces that do, but a lot of it, a numbing amount of it, is just NPCs unaccountably still firing bullets at Black Adam, nearly two fucking hours after their dead fellows have very amply demonstrated him to be bulletproof. (It doesn't help that Intergang is potentially the single most boring villain a superhero movie's ever had, whereas the slightly-more individuated supervillain we ultimately get might be the second-most.)
The fights with the Justice Society have more pizzazz but only by default; there's a profound lack of enthusiasm in actually playing with how these superpowers could interact, or how severely Adam outmatches a quartet of opponents who generously refrain from ever being hurt by him. The closest we get to cool or visceral is some de riguer superspeed slo-mo and the fact that Dr. Fate gave the VFX artists leave to brazenly knock-off Dr. Strange, and if he does one unique magic trick—multiplying his body to swarm his opponent—the movie leans on it to the point it feels like his only trick, and if I recall it never actually works. I fear it underlines how thin the reeds are I'm grasping at, but one thing I did enjoy about the movie is that when Black Adam indulges in that most-detestable of superhero film tropes, of a hero taking off their mask dozens of times so the studio can get its money's worth out of the actor's face underneath, Brosnan is at least required to physically and manually remove Fate's helmet, instead of it CGIing in and out of existence. (Hawkman's, meanwhile, CGI's in and out of existence. Sigh.)
I'll venture that it looks okay: it's not interesting and the production design has very little to work with (it's all but a single location film in its main phase, and if I'm just blue-skying, I'd say that an entire superheroes-and-sandals movie that simply took place in ancient times would've been way more intriguing), but even if the metallic golden cast that the photography settles on early and maintains throughout is blatantly stereotypical, it gives it a nice DC dourness that's a little to the side of the usual DC dourness. All along, there's a lot of grinding in and out of tones, and a lede I've regrettably buried is that despite the Snyderverse-style monochromatic gloss this is DC's most effortful attempt to "do a Marvel" since Joss Whedon's Justice League all the way back when, with Amon's entire function in the screenplay (besides being a moppet to save) boiling down to his service as a delivery device for inane comic relief. He's not the only one, either, and basically everyone has to serve that function at some point. Then there's the part where Amon-as-Bartman slides into the frame in slo-mo on his skateboard at the head of a mob, ready to do battle with zombies that exist solely to give Amon any independent activity, and this constitutes some third approach that I'm not sure I can classify, though it sure is fucking dumb.
To end on something nice, I'll circle back to what I said about Johnson being the other thing I appreciate here. For starters, though it's frequently trying to be funny, I laughed out loud only one time during Black Adam,* and it was thanks to Johnson, who buttons a line I don't remember, in response to another line I don't remember, with a brilliant little sarcastic frown-smile; and of the entire ensemble (with some respect thrown Brosnan's way, which is ironic) I think he's the only one who has anything like a worked-out understanding of his character—sullen, prickly, and low-key reveling in his antiheroic bona fides—and he's instrumental in Black Adam being even as successful as it is, impervious to the trivializing Marvel-style impulses that keep seeping through the screenplay, indifferent to the invitations to join a discourse held by badly-coded bots on Foreign Policy Twitter, and even able to mostly bat away Sabongui's kid actor cloying. He's underplaying, and it works: he's funny in acerbic ways that don't care whether you laugh or not, and this shores up his native charisma. This is all in defiance of a screenplay which, I assume, Johnson could never have been excited about. It's not enough to redeem the project, not close to it, but it's enough to keep it from being completely mindless—one of the vanishingly few pieces of evidence that showed anybody cared about Black Adam at all, and it's fitting, I guess, that the first person who cared was also the last.
*Okay, three times: I also laughed at Adam treating a modern mirror as sorcery, which in these circumstances is startling in its historically literacy, and I may have also laughed at "a refusal to use doors is a character trait," though I'm not sure I should.